Wine isn't the only alcoholic beverage for tastings! Try these spirits.
Ah, dorm parties: the jungle juice, the big plastic jugs of liquor. Now they're just hazy—and headachy—memories. As our capacity to overcome hangovers shrinks with each passing day, so expands the importance of moderation. And to enjoy every single sip, a preferred liquor is a must.
But this doesn't mean you can't party.
Hosting a spirits tasting can be very revealing. Is it possible that he really, truly prefers bottom-shelf gin, and isn't just cheap? Will you discover yourself to be a Jim Beam fan, and proud of it? Do the premium vodkas really taste better, or have we been brainwashed? Get the gang together and have some fun while you find your own truths.
PICK YOUR POISON
Choose one spirit only; our palates are easily confused. To help you decide which to explore, get The Complete Book of Spirits by Anthony Dias Blue (HarperCollins, $24.95). Blue delves into the history and nuances of a huge number of liquors and brands, providing information you won't find anywhere else. Select no more than four or five brands from a range of prices, but avoid those at the extremely low end—they are as bad as you remember.
$: under $20 per liter
$$: $20-40 per liter
$$$: $40-60 per liter
$$$: above $60 liter
Any vodka you select has to be served straight from the freezer; good vodka will be thick and syrupy when frozen. Try tasting vodkas from different countries side by side—like Skyy (USA $), Absolut (Sweden $$), Cîroc (made from grapes, France $$), and Bison Grass (which has a hint of flavor from being bottled with native bison grass, Poland, $).
Try pitting gin standbys such as Tanqueray No. 10 (UK $$) and Bombay Sapphire (UK $$) against unusual, highly flavored brands like Junipero (USA $$$) or Hendrick (with rose petals and cucumber essence, Scotland, $$).
With so much tequila on the market, there's no reason to compromise. Devote an evening to reposado, or rested, tequilas, which have aged in wood for up to a year. Ones to seek out (all from Mexico): Herradura ($$), Chinaco ($$), and Patrón ($$$). Throw in some José Cuervo ($$) and see what happens.
Rum, while increasingly trendy, is still pretty limited brand-wise. If you're tasting dark rums, be sure to sample from the various islands: Mount Gay Eclipse (Barbados $), Rhum Barbancourt Estate Reserve (aged in oak, Haiti, $$), and Myers Legend Rum Aged 10 Years (Jamaica $$). A newcomer on the light rum front is 10 Cane (Trinidad $$), made from first-pressed sugarcane. Compare it with Bacardi, of course (Puerto Rico $).
Entire books are devoted to Scotch, and you'll want to pick one up before embarking on a proper tasting. You might consider a mind-blowing bottle of Suntory Single Malt 18-year-old Black Label (Japan $$$), which Bill Murray hawks in Lost in Translation. But Suntory 12-year-old (Japan $) is a third the price, and excellent as well.
An all-American bourbon tasting is an opportunity to sample the many small-batch, single-barrel whiskeys hitting the shelves. Try the superb Pappy Van Winkle 15-year-old ($$$) or Knob Creek 9-year-old ($$) against good ol' Jim Beam ($$) and Jack Daniel's ($$).
Here's the host's protocol, per Blue: Lay out a tall, narrow glass (such as a highball or champagne flute) for each guest. Provide room-temperature spring water for sipping and rinsing between tastes, as well as paper and pens.
To keep bias at bay, pour each guest's portion (small sips, now) in another room, out of sight, or decant the spirits into clean, unlabeled glass bottles. Either way, introduce each as a number (and don’t forget to make a key!), then unveil their true identities after the tasting.
TASTE AND LEARN
In the wake of Sideways, we're all pretty familiar with the four S's of wine tasting: swirl, sniff, sip, spit… then proceed to ramble about "hints of chocolate and clover." Spirits tasting is pretty much the same, but there’s no need to study up on the jargon—"tasty" and "icky" will suffice.
First, gently sniff the glass just at the rim. Note what you smell. Anything medicinal or harshly alcoholic is a bad sign. Next, take a small sip and let it roll around on your tongue before swallowing. It may burn—or just warm up your throat as "smooth" liquors will do. Then sip again after taking a bite of food, noting how the flavors play off each other, and whether they get more complex and exciting. Last, Blue recommends splashing a touch of spring water into the spirit so you can see how it reacts to being mixed. The slight dilution will actually bring any "off" flavors or odors to the forefront.
BEYOND BAR SNACKS
Spoil your guests with one of the following pairings:
Vodka goes swimmingly with almost anything fishy: oysters, caviar, cured salmon. Throw in some high-quality brine-packed olives for a super-salty punch.
Olives pair well with gin, too (think dirty martini), as do store-bought cheddar cheese straws or English Stilton cheese.
Chips, guacamole, and tequila make a classic combo, but why not shake things up with takeout Asian chicken satay skewers? The flavors are a perfect match.
Light rum also goes beautifully with chicken satay, as well as with sugarcane shrimp (rum is made from cane juice). Dark rum, made from molasses, calls out for sweet barbecued pork—pick some up at your favorite BBQ or Chinese joint.
Odd as it sounds, Scotch and sushi are a match made in heaven. (Perhaps that's why the Japanese adore whisky.) Bourbon is delectable with barbecue or cubes of glazed ham.