Smoky First Kiss
There is something everlasting about first impressions.
This is particularly true when tasting spirits for the first time. The initial characteristics will stay imbedded in the memory files of the brain for years, maybe even a lifetime depending on how robust the nature of the spirit. Acquiring a general knowledge of any spirit and how it is made is the basic building block to mixing and enjoying spirits that have previously eluded the general palate, which I believe is happening now with the American drinker.
Gin, for example, has had a long and storied history in cocktails and drinkers memories, but is often the least understood of the major spirits and accordingly imbibers treated it as so. Think of all the flavored vodkas to appear in the last 20 years. Gin was the original flavored neutral spirit and maintains that tradition to this day. However, unlike the easy going nature of flavored vodka, Gin requires its drinkers to understand the basic role of botanicals for flavoring and the balance between sweet, tart and astringent. Thankfully the rise of classic cocktails has empowered a whole new generation of drinkers and barkeeps to reach for gin like their predecessors did when creating drinks.
The American drinking palate is ever changing and has gotten more adventurous in recent years. This has become apparent to bartenders, as drinkers eschew their fear of smoky scented spirits, which always make a big first impression. Ironically, as Americans smoke less and less each year the rise of smoky spirits has risen. The main culprits here would be the very big, peaty, smoky Scotches from Islay or more recently, the rise of Mezcal has brought the smoke back to the palate of drinkers in America.
At first glance, one assumes there couldn’t be spirits farther from each other than single malt Islay Scotch and small village style Mezcal from Oaxaca, but they are closer than one thinks. The smoky kiss a drinker gets from each of these spirits is tied to the distillation process. Whether it is peat that is burned to dry the barley for scotch distillation or wood burned during the distillation of Mezcal: both carry the smoky flavor along to the final spirit like baggage.
A drinker usually remembers their first exposure to these smoked cousins, good or bad, and that is a first impression that can last a lifetime. So, it is a good thing to know the origins of the fine spirits. Who knows when that next smoky kiss may come around?