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Language People Use to Describe Spirits


Chris Hennes
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I was jut having a discussion with a couple friends about the words people use to describe the smell and taste of spirits. One of them mentioned "wet cement" as Dale Degroff's descriptor for tequila. That didn't really make sense to me, so I went and pulled a bottle of 1800 blanco off the shelf and gave it a sniff: I got nothin'. So I mixed up a batch of cement: no, definitely nothin'. While the cement has a funky mustiness (perhaps the actual defining "mustiness"), it was very different from the kind of funk in the tequila. And the cement has a sort of soft minerality to it, where I think the tequila is much brighter. So: I don't get that one. Maybe my Quickrete has gone off...

Any other "interesting" descriptors floating out there? Do they make sense to you?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Ah, very interesting, good point. Wet (cured) cement loses the mustiness, but retains a sharper mineral characteristic (to my nose; if my neighbors didn't think I was weird before, they are dead sure now). I'm still not 100% sold on the comparison, but it's much closer, and presumably DDG has a better sense of smell than I do...

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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To be fair to Dale, I have to point out that it's not his--or anyone's--descriptor for all tequilas. It's something that I, for one, and other people I taste tequila with often pick up on in certain lowlands tequilas. A sort of sharp, but muted minerality reminiscent of the smell a cement driveway gives off when it's been splashed with water. I'd have to go through my tasting notes to pick out a couple of tequilas where it's present (like most spirits I taste carefully enough to keep notes on, they're usually tasted blind).

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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I've seen notes for vodka where it was described as "wet stone."

I've noticed that in descriptions of wines, just about every word imaginable has been used except one: grape.

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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Beer descriptors are just as nutty, too. This very evening, we were sampling a red ale, that my friend described as "heavy on the chocolate syrup and peanut butter." I said "nutty/malty?" He's like "No, sticky sweet peanut butter."

I like the language, and the adventure in trying to describe something complex. Trying to navigate through other people's descriptions, and figure out where they're coming from is a fascinating element of tasting.

Lots of times, it's not necessarily about the actual factual scent, like the wet cement comparison, but it's more in how you remember that scent, how it's categorized in your brain. Often, if you taste or smell the two things like cement and tequila together, it doesn't gel. In my line of work, we're constantly getting trained and re-calibrated to smell and taste factually, not with our own whacked out perceptions. I find that in my group of tasters, we can get really far and wide, with the connotations.

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Lots of times, it's not necessarily about the actual factual scent, like the wet cement comparison, but it's more in how you remember that scent, how it's categorized in your brain. Often, if you taste or smell the two things like cement and tequila together, it doesn't gel.

Precisely this. Such descriptors are merely a way to give people some common language with which to discuss spirits comparatively; they're memory-triggers. In this case, the presence of that "wet cement" note reminds me that, if the tequila doesn't immediately pop out with "olive brine" and "green pepper" notes, it might be a lowland style where such things are less common and I might want to look more closely for subtle ripe tropical fruit notes.

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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I'm waiting to get copies of Paul Pacult's spirits tasting workshop, but I have an image of the first page, which includes a lot of useful categories for my nose/mouth/brain. I'll share when I get the whole thing.

Meanwhile, though, I note that there are a few items listed as abnormalities that I don't quite understand: "CO2, SO2, H2S, Oxidized, Phenolic, Lactic." Anyone want to take a crack at providing a few words on those?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I've tasted it in off beer. I'm not sure if it actually happens to spirits, as a chemical reaction, or a process, or if some notes in spirits might mimic something that's been truly oxidized. Some other descriptors for oxidized that I can think of are rusty, or coppery. Metallic, but not the typical idea of it.

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OK, it's now come up a couple of times in the past few days, so I'm going to put this out there: I have never understood what "smooth" means in the context of spirits. As far as I can tell, it's nothing more than an impressionistic catch-all that means "I like this."

I've always understood that to mean that "rough" denotes an unpleasant sensation, like alcoholic burn, tannic astringency or too much alcohol in wine, etc. "Smooth" is the opposite of that: easy to drink. But I'm no professional.

nunc est bibendum...

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Agree with Alcuin, but will add that smoothness is often relative. For example, I find many say that Thomas Handy is smoother than its proof suggests...it is less harsh than expected or in comparison to some other spirit of similar or lower proof.

Edited by KD1191 (log)

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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Agree with Alcuin, but will add that smoothness is often relative. For example, I find many say that Thomas Handy is smoother than its proof suggests...it is less harsh than expected or in comparison to some other spirit of similar or lower proof.

I agree about Handy being smooth, but that's probably just in contrast to the memory of Stagg. Definitely somewhat relative to your experience and taste.

nunc est bibendum...

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There are times when smooth is an accurate description of a spirit (I suppose any spirit can be graded on its smoothness or lack thereof), but as mkayahara points out, too many people use the term because they really lack the proper vocabulary to describe why they find a spirit agreeable. I try to avoid the word in most instances except when I really do want to point out the smoothness of something, and even then only after I've already described it in other ways.

Edited by brinza (log)

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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There are times when smooth is an accurate description of a spirit (I suppose any spirit can be graded on its smoothness or lack thereof), but as mkayahara points out, too many people use the term because they really lack the proper vocabulary to describe why they find a spirit agreeable. I try to avoid the word in most instances except when I really do want to point out the smoothness of something, and even then only after I've already described it in other ways.

Can you explain what "smoothness" actually means to you, then? I'm intrigued by this concept that any spirit can be graded on its smoothness or lack thereof. Unless we're talking about glycerin content or somesuch...

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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There are times when smooth is an accurate description of a spirit (I suppose any spirit can be graded on its smoothness or lack thereof), but as mkayahara points out, too many people use the term because they really lack the proper vocabulary to describe why they find a spirit agreeable. I try to avoid the word in most instances except when I really do want to point out the smoothness of something, and even then only after I've already described it in other ways.

Can you explain what "smoothness" actually means to you, then? I'm intrigued by this concept that any spirit can be graded on its smoothness or lack thereof. Unless we're talking about glycerin content or somesuch...

Would you agree that "mouthfeel" or "sharpness" are legitimate gradeable qualities for a spirit? "Smoothness" is similar, I think, though all the words are difficult to describe in other words. Can you describe red? Not in a concrete way...smoothness would be similarly elusive to describe in anything other than abstract terms. The best we can do is list things we consider smooth and any qualifiers on that, though I would propose that perceived smoothness is dependent on the taster's tolerance for alcohol heat.

There is a regular couple at work, both physicians; he's from L.A. and she's from Trinidad. Upon tasting Smith & Cross for the first time, he conceded it's high quality but remarked that it was a bit rough around the edges due to the proof. She kept going on about how incredibly smooth it was.

Edited by thirtyoneknots (log)

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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Oh, I don't deny that smoothness is a perfectly legitimate term for describing spirits! It's just not one that I understand - or, to put it in geekier terms, not one that I grok. This discussion is certainly helping me come to grips with it: I'm getting the impression that alcohol heat (for which I have a pretty high tolerance, I think) has a lot to do with it, and that mouthfeel, bitterness and the cut of the distillation are probably involved. I fully accept that I may have to do some hands-on homework to get a better sense of it, though I don't have access to Smith & Cross. (Other rum suggestions, or Scotch suggestions, even for those that could be described as "rough", gratefully accepted.)

One of the reasons I'm interested in this is that Canadian whisky often seems to be described as smooth, which I've always taken to mean both "lower in alcohol than" and "not as flavourful as" American whiskeys. On the other hand, the first time I convinced a friend to make a Martini in 3:1 proportions with a fresh bottle of Noilly Prat, he was amazed at how "smooth" that was...

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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Oh, I don't deny that smoothness is a perfectly legitimate term for describing spirits! It's just not one that I understand - or, to put it in geekier terms, not one that I grok. This discussion is certainly helping me come to grips with it: I'm getting the impression that alcohol heat (for which I have a pretty high tolerance, I think) has a lot to do with it, and that mouthfeel, bitterness and the cut of the distillation are probably involved.

Just to muddy the waters a bit more, in line with acknowledging that, to paraphrase Martin Mull, talking about taste and fragrance is a lot like dancing about architecture --

I'm wondering if the term "smooth" is used by regular folks (as opposed to professionals, who have a more precise, and more commonly agreed-upon vocabulary) to convey a sense of a spirit or drink being well-balanced, with no one flavor note predominating to the detriment of other flavors, so that it registers agreeably on the nose and palate?

I come from the world of orchids, where people have described the fragrance of certain flowers with such phrases as "100 dead elephants rotting in the sun," and my personal favorite:

"Starts somewhere around pickled housefly legs, transits through French whorehouse perfume, and finally manages a nice spicy, grapey fragrance"

de gustibus non disputandem est.

yojimbo

"The thirst for water is a primitive one. Thirst for wine means culture, and thirst for a cocktail is its highest expression."

Pepe Carvalho, The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

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I come from the world of orchids, where people have described the fragrance of certain flowers with such phrases as "100 dead elephants rotting in the sun," and my personal favorite:

"Starts somewhere around pickled housefly legs, transits through French whorehouse perfume, and finally manages a nice spicy, grapey fragrance"

Always happy to learn that there are nuts out there who rival Society members with their obsessiveness. :wink:

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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(Other rum suggestions, or Scotch suggestions, even for those that could be described as "rough", gratefully accepted.)

I'd put Barbancourt 5* far up in the smooth category.

Maybe you could try a flight of similar rum or whiskys with varying quality and proof. Then let us know if your impression of "smooth" relates to % alcohol or something else (or a combination).

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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I think the word 'smooth' in reference to spirits is akin to saying a work of art is 'interesting.' There are too many factors that go into making something smooth. At the risk of offending some (apologies) I'd say that describing a spirit or cocktail as smooth is the lazy way out.

Striving for cocktailian excellence and always learning.

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