What’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

I’ve just returned from Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktails and spirits conference/bacchanal held in New Orleans.

What’s fresh in my mind is the final question posed at the final seminar I attended, “Drinking on Deadline,” a panel discussion about drink writers moderated by drink writer extraordinaire Paul Clarke, with Dave Wondrich and Wayne Curtis.  

Since it was asked quite literally at the last minute of the seminar, it was never properly answered:  what’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

 As someone who writes plenty of both, I have a simple response:  Tasting notes describe; reviews judge.

Tasting notes, like menu descriptions, are intended to explain what’s in the bottle, allowing the reader to decide for themselves whether it’s something they might like. It’s usually a short blurb that describes the aromas, flavors and texture, with perhaps a nod to the color or method of distillation if that’s notable. But what’s important here is that it’s a neutral description. For example:

Tequila X:  The scent of this tequila is almost like an infused vodka —  zingy, bright, citrusy and sweet. It also has a relatively sweet flavor, with hits of lemon and pepper on the finish. Smooth, soft feel.

By comparison, reviews are intended to judge a product. Sometimes numerical scores, stars or other rankings are used; but often it’s a matter of language. Spirits may be described as “lovely” or “inferior” to another bottling. In any case, the goal is to provide the reader with direction to try or not try the spirit. If a tasting note is akin to a menu description, a review is similar to asking the sommelier or waiter for a recommendation on what to order. For example:

Tequila X:  94  Among the best of the blancos. The scent is almost like an infused vodka, zingy, bright, citrusy and sweet. It also has a relatively sweet flavor, with hits of lemon and pepper on the finish. Smooth, soft feel, and definitely Margarita material.

(and yes, that’s text from an actual review.)

Is there a gray area? Sure. Most notably, when writers compile tasting notes, and editors add a headline that changes the meaning. For example,  “5 new piscos” becomes “5 great piscos” or “5 piscos to try,” adding an implication that these bottlings are recommended above others. It changes the scope from neutral to recommended, even if that wasn’t the author’s original intent.

Questions? Disagreements? Want to write a review of this post (or a tasting note)? Use the reply box below for your poison pen screed.

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Aperitif Spirits

The February 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Aperitif Spirits.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1.  For me, the single biggest takeaway was a schooling on what constitutes “aperitif.” When I first proposed this category, I hadn’t figured on including vermouths, which are fortified wines, rather than spirits. At one end of the spectrum, you have the strong and often bitter distilled spirits, which include amaros and all those monk-made herbal liqueurs; on the other, the gentle and sweet/dry aperitif wines. The latter category also spans vermouths, as well as French aperitif wines known as quinquinas and their Italian counterparts, chinati. Luckily, booze expert Paul Clarke has broken some ground writing about the latter category, so I can just direct you here for a primer.

2.  When it comes to vermouth, it’s either transcendently good, or woefully disappointing, reminiscent of wine gone bad. Not much middle ground. Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes are going to find permanent places in my personal bar.

3.  Bitter aperitifs – it’s all a matter of taste. Fernet is perhaps the most polarizing spirit of them all. Some people find it refreshing. I hate the murky brown stuff – for me, it inspires a visceral” ick!” reaction, like a little kid to mushy lima beans. I had to recognize that I could not objectively review it nor assign a rating. I will never acquire a taste for Fernet. I am okay with this.

4.  Herbal is big in the aperitif spirits category. Good luck actually picking out the specific herbs, though; most combine a mix of dozens of mysterious herbs and spices, and the recipe is deliberately vague.

5.  For whatever reason, Italy and France seem to have walloped the rest of the world in creating aperitif spirits. Where are the contributions from the rest of the world?

If you have a favorite aperitif spirit or wine, or aperitif cocktail, I’d love to hear more about it, please leave a comment! You can also use that space to bad-mouth (or defend) Fernet, if you so desire.

DIY Spiced Rum

I’ve had spiced rum on the brain ever since I wrote about the new crop of rums for “Talk Like A Pirate Day.”  And I’ve been planning to experiment and mix up a few batches but just haven’t found the time.

Turns out, Paul Clarke beat me to the punch, with his Serious Eats post on How To Make Spiced Rum From Scratch. In the article, he notes the importance of selecting the right rum to infuse — he recommends “something with a good, aged richness to it,” (I agree) and recommends Appleton Estate Extra, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Matusalem Gran Reserva. 

He also warns that vanilla can overpower some spiced rums — which seems to be the chief complaint about the current crop of spiced rums. Personally, I find those vanilla notes pleasing, but certainly it’s more interesting when the rum shows pops of cinnamon, allspice, or clove.

Paul Clarke’s Spiced Rum  

  • 1 750ml bottle decent aged rum
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 5 whole allspice berries
  • 5 whole black peppercorns
  • 1/2 piece star anise
  • 1/8 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg
  • 3 quarter-size pieces fresh ginger
  • 2 3-inch strips fresh orange zest, white pith removed

Combine everything in a large jar and seal. Keep in a cool, dark place for a couple of days, shaking it once a day to distribute the ingredients. Start tasting it after 48 hours; adjust ingredients if necessary, and once you feel it’s done (probably no longer than 4 days altogether), strain and bottle.

In the past, I’ve also tried the following spiced rum recipe — it’s unorthodoxly fruity, intense, and loosely based on a house-made version that was served at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley bar a few years back, where the rum was shaken with Cointreau and raspberry puree.

Autumn Spiced Rum

  • 1 750 ml bottle gold rum
  • 1/2 Fuji apple, diced
  • 5 pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into coin-sized slices
  • 1 dried fig
  • 1 piece of orange peel
  • 1 Tablespoon of black peppercorns, crushed

Add all the spices to the rum, close, and let steep 24 hours, or as long as one week. Strain out the fruit and spices and cover tightly. Use in your favorite rum-based cocktails.

Why didn’t I think of these spicy cocktail ideas?

A “pani puri margarita”? Chipotle and Lillet? Blackberry syrup and Tabasco?  Good ideas all, and not a single one mine.

Photo credit: Flickr/A30_Tsiitika

I was psyched to read a write-up of Spice & Ice  (or rather, a write-up of the WaPo’s write-up) in the widely-read Serious Eats blog (Serious Cocktails:  Adding Spice to Your Drinks).  But what really grabbed my attention was the Comments section – one fabulous spicy drink idea after another. Pow, pow, pow!  A quick sampling:

From laetitiae:  a friend makes the most delicious jalapeno lemonade. The spice and tart and sweet all blend together in beautiful, beautiful harmony in that drink.

From nickiter:  a dash of Tabasco mixed into a glass of Four Roses bourbon. You can’t taste it, but you can feel the warmth of it.

From TravelEatDrink, who also helpfully provided a link to a recipe for this treat:  Doesn’t get better than homemade jalapeno, cucumber, mint infused vodka with soda and a slice of lemon. (http://tinyurl.com/ye35dew)

From MikeK:  Vermilion in Chicago does a “Pani Puri Margarita” that is delicious

From nomenclature: One night a few were in the (communal) kitchen concocting these shots involving vodka, a splash of blackberry syrup and a dash or a few of tabasco. They were surprisingly good. A nice sweetness followed by the burn of the heat.

Of course, this is only a sampling of the ideas – but you can read all of them at the end of the Serious Cocktails blog post.

It’s good to be reminded every now and then that I don’t know everything about spicy cocktails – that there is still so much to learn, that someone out there may be creating something new and fabulous right this very second. Just don’t remind me too often, okay? (I’m kidding about that last part- send along new ideas, anytime!)