Learning the Language of Liquor

We are very excited to share the first guest post on St. Germain Cellars! I've been a guest on Tristan's podcast twice now, and we thought it was time for us to host him! He has a lot of excellent insights about the world of spirits, from tasting to savoring. Please enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comments or on Facebook! -Nicole

Any idiot can drink.

Any idiot plus time can drink hard (but why would anyone want to?).

Drinking well takes practice.

Spirits are a fascinating, complex world. I've found myself absolutely in love with it. It was the suave 007 aesthetic that first drew me in, but it was the intricate, the refined, and the novel that kept me. There are thousands of iterations of gin, vodka, rum, brandy, mezcal, and spirits foreign to the western drinker's tongue. There are thousands more different liqueurs, cordials, syrups, juices, bitters, and fruits. Add to that the various mixing methods, barware, geography, business, anthropology, science, history, and legends, and you have a field of study to rival most bachelor's degrees!

If you're responsible about it, it's one of the world's most rewarding hobbies, but getting started and moving forward can be a challenge!

Making things even harder are the mountains of misinformation that abound in every direction. Many people treat the liquor store like a pharmacy, and I've never yet convinced someone when I say that science shows they're actually suppressing their immune system. It's harder to find the correct Old Fashioned recipe on YouTube than to find wrong ones. Every cocktail book I look through contradicts all the others on dozens of recipes, historical stories, and even definitions!

Even if all the theory you can find were correct and consistent, you'd be no closer to understanding how tastes express and combine.

You have to actually taste to see it.

But you can't throw caution to the wind. Alcohol doesn't care whether your 7-a-day habit is to numb the pain of life, or you're just trying too hard to understand the difference between a blanco tequila, a reposado, and an anejo so you can get that perfect margarita recipe down pat. It causes health problems either way. To be a responsible spirits hobbyist and maintain good health long-term, you have to space out tastings and give your digestive tract time to rest (along with spitting for large sessions, using small portions, etc.).

Unfortunately, human memory sucks at recalling flavors in the absence of input, which means it's easy to forget what one spirit tastes like by the time you try something else. It's one thing when you've had something frequently enough that you crave it later on: when I crave Apple Pie, for example, I can almost taste it, because I know the taste so well. But I tried a nice saffron dish once, and I cannot for the life of me remember how saffron tastes. With practice and deliberate effort, however, flavor recall becomes easier, which is how chefs and bartenders can invent new recipes.

I'm stumped.

That's what tasting notes are for

Tasting notes are a language spirits enthusiasts use to record and communicate information about liquor. Much like musical notation, however, one requires practice, rather than just theory, to become literate. In order to learn to taste, to tease out the delicate little hidden flavors and aromas, to learn to tell the differences between one Cognac and another, you need to DO. It's something you simply cannot learn without participating.

Unless you're a savant, however, your notes will be very short at first, which can be discouraging.

That's why I set out one day to purchase a spirits tasting journal. I figured if I was filling something up and keeping my notes together, I'd have more fun, even if my notes weren't exactly exhaustive.

I knew moleskine made a line of journals called "passions" that included wine, beer, and coffee journals, but they had nothing specifically for distilled spirits.

Now, I love wine, beer, and coffee, but I was not looking to master any of those. Worse yet, some of those journals had templates full of unimportant junk, and only included some 10-20 tasting templates among pages upon pages of over-written guides and record-keeping templates. I went looking for other brands that may have had what I was looking for, but aside from a few whiskey-specific journals, there was not much to see.

So I decided to make my own.

It was a bit of a journey, but that's true of any book, so I won't bore you with the details. What it comes down to is this: I created the journal I had wanted to buy.

It contains some 150 or so pages of tasting templates, and each of those pages also includes a selected fact, quote, tip, or trick.

It includes an introduction on how to taste, and on what makes each of the categories of spirits unique and different.

I also included maps of a few spirits-producing regions (Scotland, Islay, France, the Caribbean, and Mexico), and placed a world map on each tasting page. One of the most fun things for me about collecting spirits is seeing where they all came from, so putting a dot on the map feels like a sense of perspective.

I ordered my proof from the printers several months back, and it's currently for sale through my website.

Over the past several months, it has been quite an experience watching more and more pages fill up. A journal calls out to be filled up. Its blank pages beckon.

Before putting the journal together, I'd made a couple of half-hearted attempts to take tasting notes for scotch, but after a year, I had only taken notes on three single malt Scotch Whiskies, and had ignored my bar full of other spirits. In four months, I've filled up about 20-25 pages of notes, and I even increased my samples per session after finding a little magnetic paper clip holder that makes a perfectly good spittoon (so I don't have to see the spit).

From the Dollar Store--go get one!

When you're having fun and learning, it's easier to put up with incomplete notes. It's less frustrating to look at a page with too few words when the layout already gives a sense of completeness. Sometimes, you do a tasting, and you just don't feel like you've learned anything, but with the map to give a visual reference and something new to read on each page, you can always gain something even on a somewhat disappointing tasting.

In short, keeping a record of new tastes in a formatted journal makes learning and improving just as fun as drinking.

Tristan Ogram Buckley is a spirits and cocktail enthusiast and digital bartender living in North Carolina. He runs SavoredSpirits.com, with the mission to be a fun and reliable resource on cocktails with a culture of responsible moderation.

Tristan Ogram Buckley

Tristan is a spirits and cocktail enthusiast and digital bartender living in North Carolina. He runs SavoredSpirits.com, with the mission to be a fun and reliable resource on cocktails with a culture of responsible moderation.