As I glance out the window on this crisp late November day, I can see the trees have all shed their leaves, clearly signaling that we are, without a doubt, full into Brandy season. Here at Heavenly Spirits, we have been busy keeping up with the increased demand for exceptional French spirits. Like the industrious squirrels scurrying around the yard, we have been traveling around the country making sure retailers are well-stocked in anticipation of the cold weather ahead. Over the past few months, Christine and I have visited over a dozen states, conducting seminars and tasting events everywhere we go. Fortunately, we continue to enjoy each other's company, as well as the upbeat nature of our industry and the eclectic collection of people we encounter along the way.
In October, after CC and I worked the Indie Spirits Festival together in Chicago, I returned to the home office while she began a two-week cross-country spirit promotion marathon. The states she visited include: Indiana, Tennessee, Colorado, and Arizona. In late October we joined forces again, traveling to Tampa, Florida, where we met about twenty-five members of the Tampa Bay Whisky Society and conducted an informational tasting seminar at On Swann. There we sampled a wide range of delicious ArmoriK Single Malt Whiskies. Many thanks to Lana and Chris for organizing this event. We also had the opportunity to tour and sample at least a dozen of the fine eating & drinking establishments in and around both Tampa and Saint Petersburg. Our stop at Bern’s Steak House Bar was a particularly enjoyable treat. We were thrilled to spot some our rare Armagnacs, Cognacs, and Calvados on their extensive menu, before we were invited to tour their wine cellar, which is purported to be one of the best in the world; and of course we ended up in their famous dessert room ordering a Heavenly digestive and sharing a crème brûlée. Endorsed by some long-time friends, we stayed at the fabulous Epicurean Hotel by Marriott, and we highly recommend it to anyone visiting Tampa, especially if you’re a fan of fine wine and excellent service.
Only a week later, we drove up to New Hampshire to participate in their Annual Distillers’ Showcase event, and then flew to Buffalo, New York, where we were invited to give two seminars at the American Wine Society’s annual convention. The topics we covered were: “Armagnac vs Cognac,” and “Calvados and Other Normandy Delights.” Both seminars sold out and we had a great time with a very knowledgeable group of wine aficionados. It was our first experience with this enthusiastic organization and we definitely hope it will not be our last.
After another short pit stop at home, we spent our pre-Thanksgiving week back in Chicago participating in three separate events. The first was the French American Chamber of Commerce’s annual Passport to France, featuring tastings of Chicago’s best representations of French food and drink. Our table featured a wide range of our spirits, carried by our distributor, BC Merchants, including ArmoriK Single Malt whisky. Thanks to wine expert Tony Gatti, we even got to have a first taste of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau by Georges Duboeuf, (excellent), as well as the first ever launching of Nouveau Beaujolais Rosé.
The very next evening, we were at the Lakeview Binny’s Beverage Depot, in the basement warehouse cave that was formally owned by infamous gangster, Al Capone. Here we presented a tasting seminar to a sold-out room, entitled: “Armagnac De-constructed,” which included a complete look at the ins and outs of Armagnac, accompanied by nine sample tastings from around the region. I guess sharing our passion for Armagnac is just what Mousquetaires like us do.
Finally, the third event was a bit more personal and dare I say, “romantic?” as Christine and I paid a visit to Geneva, Illinois, connecting the loop on the timeline of when we first met. It was over thirty-two years ago, after a five month stay here “to perfect her English,” that Christine’s host family gave her a going-away party in this town. That was on the night before we sat next to each other on an airplane in Iceland. This was her first time visiting Geneva since that day and my first time ever. A lot of water has certainly passed under the bridge since then. We did end up enjoying a wonderful lunch with Sue and Jim, a married couple Christine became close with during her original stay so many years ago. We are grateful that Sue found Christine and reconnected with her through Facebook last year. It was a warm and wonderful reunion in a very charming town, known especially for its Guinness Book-awarded Master Chocolate Chef, Alain Roby.
For the rest of the year, we plan to stay closer to home, sharing our spirits through local tasting events, while doing our best to make sure our Heavenly products are available to be enjoyed at celebrations throughout the country.
Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season! May all your spirits be Heavenly and bright.
Daniel & Christine Cooney
Having worked in the Drinks industry for over 30 years, it is safe to say, Christine and I “taste” much more than we “drink.” What I mean is that rather than raising a glass of spirits to quench our thirst or wash down a meal, or get inebriated, we are most often taking sips of alcoholic drinks for the purpose of seeing how they taste and then analyzing the results. In fact, we most often spit out our sips, especially when attending a large tasting event. We often take notes, and we talk about the particulars with each other or with our colleagues. Anyone who is in the drinks industry does the same and anyone thinking of entering this business will need to learn some of the basics to do it more efficiently and with purpose. That said, I put together a list of what we consider the 7 best practices for tasting spirits.
1. Glass is Better than Plastic:
It might seem obvious, but if you have a choice between tasting something in glass or plastic, choose glass. Even better, choose the appropriate glassware that you would normally use to serve that particular spirit. In the brandy cellars of France, the cellar masters of Cognac, Calvados or Armagnac most often taste the developing eau de vie with what is known as a tulip glass. In Scotland you will most often find the cellar masters using the Glencairn glass, a sort of tulip glass without the stem. Both examples have a similar shape, designed to gradually funnel the aromas up an extended chimney to your nose.
2. Essence and Time:
The condition of your palate is of utmost importance when tasting and it is believed that your taste buds are open and in prime condition just before lunch time, near morning’s end. The body as a whole, is at this time, usually well rested and the mouth is feeling clean and free from any distracting influences, including that after-breakfast brushing. Tasting of another sort (the kind you smoke) is famous these days for being at 4:20. For us at Heavenly Spirits, we look up at the clock, especially on a Friday and say, "It's 11:00 AM, what do you feel like tasting?"
3. Dry before Sweet:
Whenever more than one spirit is being tasted, the best tasting order is generally decided by a ranking system that puts light, white and dry before dark, sweet and enduring. One example that we regularly encounter is with our absinthe. Because of its specific and enduring, all-natural taste and smell, we always save it for the end, as it would undeniably have an effect on anything else we would be tasting afterward.
4. Telling a Book by its Cover:
While one can learn a great deal by observing the look and color of a particular spirit, it is wise not to presume anything until it’s been tasted. A good example of that is whisky or other brown spirits, where darker is not always tastier or older, as some spirit producers use caramel and other additives to influence the color. Characteristics one can gather through observation include: color, clarity, opacity, viscosity and texture.
5. Your Nose Knows:
Before one even tastes the spirit in the glass, it is important to have a good whiff of the aroma emanating from inside. Taste and smell are very closely associated and it is difficult to really have one without the cooperation of the other. A good tip for facilitating this collaboration between tongue and nose is to open your mouth slightly while sniffing. Also be careful not to bury your nose too deeply inside the glass for risk of burning your nasal passages. Instead, sneak up to the glass with your nose at different distances. It's also recommended to develop your own personal reference list of familiar scents and categories that you can draw on when trying to describe a spirit that moves you. Sweet, floral, earthy, or savory are just a few category examples.
6. Beginning, Middle and End:
When you finally have the opportunity to bring the spirited liquid to your mouth, do so with delicate care. I’ve too often witnessed novice participants at tasting events. They simply throw back whatever was in the glass or tasting cup without care or caution, making it near impossible to evaluate the potential artisanal masterpiece that just flew across their tongue.
A healthy adult has about 10,000 taste buds and this diminishes to about 5,000 as a person gets older. A proper tasting experience can be broken down into three stages: 1. Entry, 2. Mid-palate, and 3. Finish. The “entry” is of course concerned with the moment that the spirit first enters your mouth and the impressions that it makes while encountering the tip of your tongue. “Mid-palate” describes what happens when during that first or second sip, you allow the spirit time to settle onto and then roll off your tongue. Finally, the “finish” is that part of the tasting experience that describes those last sensations just before, during and after you swallow. It is, in my opinion, near impossible to describe the finish without swallowing. However, spitting should always remain an option if necessary.
There is of course, no end to the individual taste sensations one might experience during anyone of these three stages. Christine and I know that tasting spirits is a very subjective process. Descriptions will be personally referenced by each individual. However, some of the descriptions might include general categories similar to those experienced when smelling, such as: sweet or savory, floral or earthy, mild or sharp, and fiery or round.
7. Additional Considerations:
As smell is such an important aspect to tasting, it would be strongly advised not to show up to a spirit tasting event wearing perfume or cologne no matter how attractive you might find it, as it will greatly interfere with your ability to taste fairly and accurately. It also might effect those around you. If you have been tasting only wine before coming to the spirits, be sure to reset your palate with a water-cracker or bread and water before venturing in. At the very least, disregard your first sip of spirits. You might even just rinse your mouth with a small sip of the spirit then spit it out before you proceed to actually taste. As far as pairing a particular libation with food, that is a topic for a later discussion.
Finally, there will always be extremes in tasting protocol, and they are often employed by the organizers of international tasting competitions, such as the San Francisco Spirits Competition or the Ultimate Beverage Challenge. These competitions often do a layer of blind tastings or include several, separately-timed tastings of the same spirit. In his book, "Kindred Spirits," famed spirit aficionado, Paul Pacult, describes in detail his almost scientific regimen when tasting for the reviews he writes for his "Spirit Journal." That’s well and good for a professional reviewer like Paul. For most tasting situations however, I hope these basic tips are enough to provide a more enjoyable and productive experience while insuring a fair and unbiased spirit evaluation. Cheers!