Bartenders never get the same type of tasting training that wine people do, according to Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail, yet they made big decisions about what to carry in the bar. You can acquire taste, DeGroff said at a session during the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, “but you have to build your tasting muscle.”
How? DeGroff, who presented a pisco tasting at the conference with Pisco Portón master distiller Johnny Schuler, advised going to the produce section of the grocery store and really smelling the fresh fruits and vegetables to improve your ability to pick up aromas and flavors in spirits. You should then taste types of vodkas, gins and other spirits against each other to pick up the nuances and characteristics.
It’s important to always taste twice—the first sip is really a palate cleanser that prepares your mouth for the spirit’s flavor, DeGroff said. The second tip: It may be tempting to swallow during a spirits tasting, but “you gotta spit,” he said, or you’ll be inebriated. Finally, he said, be sure to write down your first few observations about a spirit. “Your nose turns off after a while,” though you can smell your arm or something different to get aromas back, he said.
Hay, toast, chocolate, bananas, rose, jasmine, pineapple are just a few of the descriptors that came up when tasting the four different piscos. One umami-driven pisco, which was described as briny, nutty, like tomato water and pickles, was “almost a bit of a tough customer, but that’s the beauty of it,” DeGroff said, noting that this more savory pisco would pair well with sushi.
Pisco, named for a deep-water port in South America, is arguably the oldest distilled spirit in the New World, DeGroff said. Ship captains that stopped at the port to stock up began buying pisco for cheap and brought in back to the U.S.; it was particularly popular in San Francisco before Prohibition, he said.
It takes 16 lbs. of grapes to make one bottle of Porton, Schuler said. Because pisco is made from wine, he noted, “many of the same tasting characteristics apply.”