Last week’s column was an attempt to steer consumers of wines to places where valuable knowledge could be gained that would add to more enjoyment and appreciation of said wines.
Okay, so it sounds loftier than it really is. The overriding concept here (big picture, if you will) is that the more you know, the more you can appreciate whatever. That applies to sports, the arts, architecture, cuisine, and, yes, adult beverages.
As noted, last week we managed to maul wine appreciation, and, in the interest of fair play, we will do the same “excellent” job here and now with spirits, the drinking kind.
Spirits’ education presents a greater challenge than wine, and a stiffer learning curve. Within each spirit category is a raft of sub-species, all of which are important to aficionados. Places of origin, aging regimes, legal requirements, additives, and the like can take the same straightforward spirit and change it completely in terms of aroma, taste, longevity, application, and preference by the user.
It’s true for every spirit. Rums can vary greatly depending on where they are from and whether they are categorized as agricole, dark, spice, the types of raw ingredients, and distilling practices. Even a product as straightforward as whiskey, which proffers an aging date, may not really, in calendar years, be that old. Many whiskies denoted 15 or 20 years old merely have to “act like” a whiskey with that aging experience. They may not truly be anywhere near that old.
The other complicating aspect of spirits are the included supporting players in a cocktail. While we seem to have passed through the era of eight different additives to a cocktail (thank goodness), we are now in the midst of an era of fewer additive ingredients but they are more esoteric. Not bad, mind you, but with more elaborate stories to tell.
I call this the “eye of newt” era. Liqueurs made from wildflowers picked only at certain times in the Swiss Alps are not uncommon. Combining a rum with the mash-up of particularly small and elegant pineapples available only in one place on the planet is not considered too much cuteness. It is sought after.
In wine, when someone wants to learn more about the topic, I encourage them to “pull a lot of corks.” First you should lay a base of knowledge, not details but generalities. Then you owe it to yourself the opportunity to experience the subject matter, namely by tasting wines from various places made with various grapes in a particular way.
Spirits and cocktails are no different. How would you describe the difference between a gin and tonic made with a London Dry Gin and a Genever from Holland? It’s not only the spirit that requires consideration, you also should move along to evaluate the inclusion of a well-known tonic versus a home-made offering.
Within those narrow parameters, you are facing a spectrum of aroma and flavor profiles that can keep the conversation going for hours, maybe even days, with no final definitive outcome.
Here’s the joy-factor: education is primarily self-taught through observation and experience. You pick a spirit in which you have an interest then pursue learning about it. And how do you pick a spirit as the starting point? Usually one of your friends, or your parents, will tell you about something and then offer a taste. You like it, or you don’t, and the game is afoot.
There might be a more reasonable solution, and that is to invest a little time into semi-formal education about drinks and spirits. Just as it is oft-noted that drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea, without “laying a base,” which you do by eating something before the drinking begins, so it is true that laying a base of knowledge about spirits and mixers can add immeasurable enjoyment to your journey.
I can suggest the program at DrinkLab, a project of Daniel Victory and Camille Whitworth, proprietors of Victory on Baronne Street. These classes explore the world of mixology, including a thorough explanation of the spirits, the ancillary additions to a cocktail and the proper cocktail construction procedure and technique.
Think of DrinkLab in the same vein as one of our many cooking schools, but with liquor instead of herbs and seafood. This is a fun way to gain knowledge and understanding. College should have been like this. I might have done better. “Might have” are the operative words here.
In any case, while spirits can be learned on the fly, why pick up somebody else’s bad habits? Learn from experts, either at a bar or in a classroom setting. The exploration itself is a good time. There’s no downside to understanding yourself and the world around you, especially when alcohol is involved.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life," hosted by Tim every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcast episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/