Spring 2020|volume 13|Issue 3

    Raise Your Spirits

    Decisions, Decisions
    Max Miller

    Max Miller

    Who doesn’t love choice? The annals of marketing journals over the years are rife with perspectives on the value of having choice when buying consumer goods. We love variety. But at the same time there are an equal number of perspectives around having too much choice and how consumers can be overwhelmed. This notion of choice is fresh in my own mind after a participant at one of my tastings asked a very basic question: “I am a Rum drinker, but after tonight (we were tasting Scotches) I think I am going to start drinking Scotch. But there are so many. Where do I start?”

    As every spirits category continues to grow, the number of options continues to grow. What used to be one corner of one shelf for Tequilas is now an entire section. What used to be one aisle of Scotch is now two or three. And Bourbon, sheer exponential growth. So, upon reflecting on the question of “where to start,” I’ve decided to share a few pointers to allow you to sift through the many choices you may confront as you do your spring spirits shopping across some of the most popular categories.

    Tequila. Spring signals Cinco de Mayo on the freshly cleaned patio. When looking for Tequila, my number one rule: Make sure you see “100% Agave” somewhere on the label. Its absence means you may be dealing with sugar and caramel additives. The other key elements on a Tequila bottle are the terms Plata/Silver/Blanco (0-2 months aged), Reposado (2-11 months aged), Anejo (12 months to 3 years aged), and Extra Anejo (aged 3 years plus). As a rule of thumb, the younger Tequilas tend to highlight the natural agave and floral flavors (sometimes pepper), and as they age, the flavors of the oak (vanilla, oak) become more and more apparent.

    Bourbon. The Bourbon aisle just keeps growing and growing. You are not going to see a whole lot of age statements on labels, nor can you let the light or dark color of the spirit guide your thinking. What you can do, however, is look at the mashbill of the Bourbon (i.e., the grain composition). Bourbons are generally three-grained expressions—corn, barley, and rye, or corn, barley, and wheat (in addition to several other factors, Bourbon must be at least 51% corn). So how does this help your choice? If you like a spicier Bourbon, then you’ll want to select a rye-forward mashbill. If you like a sweeter Bourbon, then corn-forward or wheated (wheat instead of rye) is for you. The challenge: Many Bourbons don’t disclose their mashbill on the label, so you’ll have to do some web searching while you are in the aisle. Just in case you need some flavor landmarks: Makers Mark is a wheated Bourbon. So, if you are looking for a softer, sweeter Bourbon you are looking for a flavor profile similar to that. Basil-Hayden is a rye-forward Bourbon, so you will find a spicier flavor in similar Bourbons.

    Scotch. If you thought you had too many choices with Bourbon, then Scotch can be overwhelming for sure. The upside is that Scotch flavor profiles align nicely with the Scotland terroir. For example, many shy away from Scotch because they tasted a smoky, peaty expression at some point and that was too maritime or medicinal for them. These types of Scotches typically come from the isles of Scotland, so if you see Islay, or Skye, or Orkney on the label, you are likely to encounter the smoky, peaty, maritime flavors. Conversely, if you are looking for softer, fruitier flavor notes, then Scotches from the Highlands of Scotland are probably for you. So look for the word “Highland” on the label. More specifically, if you see the term “Speyside,” this is a region in the heart of the Highlands with many distillers operating along the river Spey.

    So, choice is not such a bad thing when you have some guideposts. The next time you can’t figure out what to buy at the shelf, don’t default to the coolest looking label or bottle design. Pull up this article and let your taste preferences guide you through the ever-growing spirits world.

    Max Miller is the president and chief tasting officer of Raise Your Spirits (raiseyourspirits.net). A former corporate attorney turned entrepreneur and college professor, Max has a hearty thirst for knowledge and for fine spirits. He is well versed in the differentiation of the complex flavors found in craft and luxury spirits and he enjoys reading about the history of the brands, the science behind production, and the often whimsical anecdotes that are unique to each spirit. His vision is simple: Make every experience memorable, exceptional, and uniquely yours. Max’s new company is TheStillLife (stilllife.com). Enjoy regular tastings and also spread the word to those who may want to join; memberships available via the website.