Thursday, July 31, 2008

How Tasty!: Musings on Tastings and Tasters

This article was first published on July 28, 2008, as a part of the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail Blog. It was addressed to the contingency of cocktail bloggers and anyone who cared to read along.

There is no better joy than to see a grown man or woman take a sip of something so utterly breathtaking, words fail to to express the glow of inner peace. Ah, the ineffability of Elysian elixirs. We would love it if they rejuvenated our tired bones and sere skin, or offered us a brief glimpse into the future, but alas, they can only delight, and sometimes intoxicate.

The Tasting Room

Tastings at Tales of the Cocktail were by far the easiest and sometimes most fun method of getting to know a new spirit or being reinvigorated by an old favorite shaken up in a new way. It was also a surefire way to observe firsthand the crazy world of PR, Marketing, and Sales, and meet the people who are their driving force.


Catdaddy: a love affair begins

Our favorites were, in no particular order (but for very particular reasons):

Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, from Piedmont Distillers, for its sweet kick in the pants (love the way it mixes with the peach-infused Midnight Moon Moonshine and sweet tea); there was even duck confit and crackers for those of us who like a little food with our cocktail;

All the Chartreuses, especially the rare and mind-blowing Elixir Végétal, of which Antoinette Cattani, President of Cattani Imports, touted its curative effects for combating ague. “One dose of this, and a good night’s sleep, and your fever is as good as gone.” We only wish it was available in this country, but the Fed’s won’t allow it because the recipe is secret and the FDA only allows full disclosure of all ingredients that enter this country. Oh well. Next time we’re in France . . . ;


Chesterfield Brown, of Mount Gay

Mount Gay, for the stentorian Chesterfield Brown, the master mixologist who explained to us every step in the distillation and bottling process of each and every rum available at the tasting (we liked the Barbados Sugar Cane Brandy Aged Rum); and

Clément Créole Shrubb Liqueur, for its beguiling orange essence, and that you can sip it all by its lonesome without being disturbed by an alcohol-heavy, or too sweet, aftertaste. As a mixer, it excels.

Tasters, Supertasters, and the Unfortunately Named Nontasters

Darcy S. O’Neill, from Art of Drink, led us on an oral and mental journey of our taste buds in the session titled “Sensory Perception in Mixology/What your taste buds are telling you.” Most of us are Tasters, that is, we have a a certain number of receptors on our tongue (papillae) that tell us if the food we are eating is bitter (our ancestors equated bitter food with poison). Nontasters have fewer taste buds, so they don’t have as strong an aversion to bitter foods and sometimes gravitate towards fatty and sweet foods more easily. Supertasters have a great number of bitter taste-bud receptors on their tongues, and usually hate bitter (and too sweet) foods and drinks. As a result, these people tend to be “picky” or “fussy.” Most children are supertasters, their buds not yet compromised by the effects of a lifetime of challenging their palates.

We put little strips of paper on our tongues that would inform us of our taster status. Supertasters have a huge avesion to the taste of the paper, and want to spit it out immediately, gagging in the process. Tasters scrunch up their faces wrily and complain for the next ten minutes how bad their mouth tastes. Nontasters chew the paper and swallow it as if it were the bitten-off end of a wrapped straw.

What we discovered is that we are not the same . . . which is a good thing! We balance each other: One keeps the other one from over-seasoning food and over-sweetening (or over-bittering) the cocktails. The other encourages more herb and spice play in the kitchen from the first and challenges him to make and shake an occasional cocktail with more zing. We also learned that mood plays an important role in what we are, well, in the mood for when we sit at a bar hoping the bartender will understand without words our very needs. So, offering “flavorful drinks to low-key people” might cheer them up a bit, while perhaps it would be best to avoid too much bitter flavors in a cocktail for a gaggle of “cheerleaders whose team just won the State Championship.”

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, So I Make My Own!

Our hats off to Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles for the “Making Your Own Cocktail Ingredients” session. What a pleasure it was to see all these amazing mixologists relate their tales of the sometimes Hurculean labors it took them to perfect their particular liqueurs, syrups, and bitters. For those of you who were not present, we were treated to Paul’s Falernum #10, a well-balanced blend of rummy spiciness, and Erik Ellestad’s orgeat (Erik, of the Underhill-Lounge in cyberland, was gracious enough to let us take a bottle home with us!), an incredible sweet, almond syrup used in drinks such as the Mai Tai. Jamie Boudreau’s recreation of the unattainable Amer Picon was a bittersweet delight (he calls his “Amer Boudreau,” natch), and we wanted to take some home with us, but the recipe is available on the Web. He was also a hilarious speaker. The 50-50 Manhattan used Jon Derragon’s (of PDT) recreation of the defunct Abbot’s bitters. The flavor bowled us over and made us love the Manhattan all over again (not that we ever fell out of love, but it’s always good to surprise your palate with a new twist on an old classic). And a big surprise which had the whole room abuzz was the Bacon-infused bourbon from PDT. One sip and there was no doubt that infusions had jumped to a new level. Now whether you like it or not is another story. We already have an idea for a cocktail.



We now pose two questions to ourselves:

1. What flavor sensations can we exploit in our own liqueur, syrup, or bitters?; and

2. What will be next year’s new big thing that’ll be on everyone’s tongue (both in spirits and buzz), and will have every mixologist clamoring to play with (and perhaps inspire to recreate)?

Tune in next year, and in the meantime, start steeping, mixing, infusing, and, most important, sipping.

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