In my last article, I brought up the double-edged sword of standardization in the global spirits industry: it’s intended to produce quality and consistency, but products that are too consistent can become boring and undifferentiated. today we ask: what’s a consumer to do?
This article is really for those people who found that they like either Bourbon, Tequila, or Cognac, but deep down have that fear that maybe it all kind of tastes the same to them. Part of that may be solved by a sincere (and perhaps slightly guided) attempt to hone one’s palate. The other component might be to trying something slightly off the beaten path that will provide better contrast without being totally unfamiliar.
Playing within the category
This is really somewhat of an oversimplification, but let’s say that we conceptualize each spirit as follows: bourbon as a standardized whiskey, tequila as a standardized mezcal, and cognac as a standardized brandy. From there, I would try a few varieties within the standardized categories. For a bourbon, I would compare an oak-heavy bourbon like Knob Creek to a wheated bourbon like Maker’s Mark to a high rye bourbon like Old Grand Dad Bonded. See which of those you like best after directly comparing them to one another sip-to-sip.
If you’re a tequila fan, find a generally quality brand (Don Julio or Avion would be just fine), and try a blanco, reposado, and anejo side-by-side. See which one you like best. For cognacs, try something like a VS in comparison to a VSOP from the same brand to see how the core flavor develops with barrel aging time. There are definitely very interesting experiments to conduct here!
However, once you get a sense (for example) of what a bourbon is supposed to taste like, you’ll begin to see more similarity from brand to brand than you will difference. I know I like Baker’s and Blanton’s, but if you poured both for me side-by-side I don’t know if I would be able to tell which was which from memory. No knock against either of those bottles: again, they’re both quality spirits made in accordance with tradition and standard.
Moving off the reservation
If you find yourself at the point where you’re getting bored, that’s when I’d branch out. If you’re a bourbon drinker, try 100% ryes. You’ll find that within American-produced brown whiskey, you’ll get more tastes and aromas like maple, brown bread, chocolate, and licorice.
If you’re a cognac drinker who only buys Hennessy or Remy, give an Armenian Brandy a try. The Armenians are fiercely proud of their history as winemakers and producers of a product they argue is even finer than French Cognac, and most of what I’ve had is deep, brooding, and rich. Often, you’ll trade cinnamon and grape for darker, earthier stone fruits (plum, for example) with a little more oak bite thanks to longer aging.
If you constantly have a bottle of Patron Silver on the shelf, ask your bartender (or search my archive) for a mezcal recommendation with less smoke, so you can see how agave spirits can bring forth a larger range of mineral, earthy, meaty, and fruity flavors that are less common in most tequilas. If you’re feeling extra crazy, you could try a Sotol, Bacanora, or Raicilla: three other mezcal-like spirits produced in other regions of Mexico.
And, if you find that you really want to open up your palate and awareness of other tastes, you might try a jump to a completely different kind of spirit in general. Oddly enough, taking a break from Scotch a few years ago and switching over to tasting a variety of gins helped me to detect a lot more nuance in both spirit types.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with consistency! However, there’s a whole wide world open to those looking for something a little more off-kilter. I just wonder how many people out there are aware of it.