In early April, The American Distilling Institute convened a panel of judges in Alameda, California to evaluate dozens of American fruit spirits. The submissions ranged from European-inspired varietal grappas and whole-fruit-in-the-bottle pear eaux de vie to a purportedly extinct American spirit, barrel-aged peach brandy. By day’s end, 58 spirits had been swirled, sniffed, sipped, and sometimes spat. Along with Rogue Spirits’ distiller John Couchot, I poured a fair number of those half-ounce doses for judges sequestered behind sliding doors off the upstairs aerobar of St. George Spirits.
Talk about two kids in a candy store.
As John and I poured spirits from competing distilleries, we scoped out the expansive liquid arsenal before us. Occasionally, a brandy once opened had an aroma so beguiling that our eyes locked, our lips curled into bookend smiles, and we were compelled to do some pre-judging of our own.
When tasting spirits, judges may talk of straightforward smells and tastes of orange, peach, pineapple, juniper, or almond notes. They can also sometimes get more esoteric and less complimentary with the references—yeast extract, blackcurrant leaves, white pepper, biscuits, varnish, Band-Aid, fungal, paint thinner, or boiled cabbage notes aren’t unknown.
Conference attendees sampling after the judging.That’s all well and good, but it can lead to some seriously overwrought prose in the wrong hands. Consider an approach espoused by Gary Regan at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Regan’s particularly Spartan approach to evaluating spirits called for using as few words as possible: one word is best, two is good, three is ok. Anything more than that and you may be blowing hot air up our skirts.
There is a middle ground, of course. I like the one-word approach. Orange. Oak. Peat. Even Autumn or Grandpa. Gets at the heart of the thing immediately. Provides a nice platform for developing what you’d want to do with the spirit. But well-made spirits (and some disastrous attempts as well) may be more complex than a mere three words capture. As a heuristic device, Grandpa gets the mind working, but he’s not a monolithic aroma. What else does he smell of? Cigars? Old shoe leather? Aqua Velva? Freshly-mown grass? Grandma, perhaps? We’ll put aside for the time being what he might taste like.
Stepping up to classify those points that distinguish gold medal spirits from also-rans, the Wine & Spirits Education Trust has developed an approach to liquor tasting that guides tasters through evaluating a spirit’s appearance, nose, palate, and aroma & flavor characteristics (download Level 4 Diploma - Spirits pdf here).
ADI’s hundred-point system is informed by WSET’s system, but it heavily weights a spirit’s aromatics and flavor. When evaluating the spirits, the eight judges assigned points in six categories;
- Appearance (10)
- Aromatics (30)
- Flavor (30)
- Mouth Feel (10)
- Finish (10)
- Balance (10)
Fruit Infusions (fruit infusion in a fruit spirit)
Gold: St. George Spirits—Aqua Perfecta Framboise Liqueur
Silver: Huber Starlight Distillery—Raspberry Dessert Wine
Bronze: Uncle John's Farmhouse & Winery—Apple Dessert Wine
Eau de Vie—Pear
Gold: Westford Hills
Silver: (Tie) Peach Street Distillers & St. George Spirits Aqua Perfecta
Bronze: Harvest Spirits
Eau de Vie—Other
Gold: St. George Spirits Aqua Perfecta Framboise
Silver: Peach Street Distillers Peach Eau de Vie
Bronze: Westford Hills Distillers—Kirsch
Gold: Peach Street Distillers—Gewurtztraminer
Silver: Peak Spirits—Riesling
Bronze: Peach Street Distillers—Muscat
Gold: Huber Starlight Distillery
Silver: Great Lakes Distillery
Best of Category: St. George Spirits—Heirloom
Double Gold: Brandy Peak—Pear Brandy
Silver: Peach Street Distillers—Peach Brandy
Gold: Jepson Vineyards—Signature Reserve
Silver: Jepson Vineyards—Old Stock
Bronze: Osocalis—Rare Alambic Brandy
ADI brandy judges from left to right: Nancy Fraley (CA), Graham Hamblett (NH), Brendan Moylan (CA), Dan Farber (CA), standing moderator Andrew Faulkner (CA), Rory Donovan (CO), Deborah Parker Wong (CA), Hubert Germain-Robin (CA) and Don Beatty (CA). All told, the judges spent eight solid hours judging submissions.