What’s shakin’ cocktail fans?
Welcome to Episode 194 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!
Thanks for joining us for another Bar Cart Foundations episode, where we zoom in on one very specific topic in the spirits and cocktail world so that, at the end of the show, you’ll walk away feeling like an armchair expert.
This time around, we’re going to explore the less glamorous side of booze by learning about how and why a spirit might be considered “flawed” or “faulty.” We like to keep it light here at Modern Bar Cart, but the fact of the matter is that if you spend long enough tasting your way through any segment of the food and drink world, you’re gonna come across a few pretty unsavory flavors. We’re here to lean into that by investigating how to detect “off” flavors and aromas, what causes them, and what to do when you encounter them.
What’s shakin’ cocktail fans?
Any guesses? If you’re thinking Prohibition, you get a gold star.
According to some sources, the original inspiration for the Long Island Iced Tea is a gentleman known simply as “Old Man Bishop,” who lived in a community called “Long Island” in the city of Kingsport Tennessee during Prohibition. In addition to the commonplace cornucopia of booze, Bishop’s version is alleged to have contained whiskey and maple syrup, rather than triple sec or cola, but the effect was the same: an incredibly strong drink that ended up looking like an innocuous glass of iced tea. Just like speakeasies or bootleggers, this appears to have been an innovation that allowed alcohol to hide in plain sight.
A different origin story has bartender Robert “Rosebud” Butt creating this drink for a cocktail competition in 1972 while working at the Oak Beach Inn on the Long Island that most of us are familiar with off the coast of New York. But when given the option between an old guy drinking in public during prohibition and a bored, beachside bartender in the ‘70s, you know we’re gonna opt for the former.
We’ll start with a distinction that I think is helpful, although I’m not sure I’ve come across any official literature that makes this distinction:
To me, a FLAW is when you taste or smell something in a spirit that could be handled better, whereas a FAULT is when you are able to identify a flavor or aroma compound that shouldn’t be present at all. A flaw in a steak would be that it’s kinda chewy or flavorless- maybe because the animal wasn’t taken care of well, or because the butcher didn’t do a good job preparing it. A fault in a steak would be green, fuzzy mold growing on it. One is disappointing, and the other is a complete deal-breaker. Another way to formulate this would be to say, “huh, this has an ‘off flavor,’” vs. “oh, gross, this is completely tainted.”
So let’s start with the serious stuff – the big-deal faults that you should hope never to encounter in your spirits, but that nevertheless pop up every now and then.
Generally, these can be assessed on the nose of the spirit – and if not on the nose, then very often on the palate. Many, if not most, faults are microbial in nature – meaning that some yucky mold or bacteria infiltrated the spirit at some point in the production process and exerted a negative influence on the end product.
Imagine some smells that you could live without:
Strong antiseptic cleaners
These are all very common aromas you’ll notice in faulty spirits, and I think that one reason why we commonly overlook them is because we’re taught that when enjoying booze, we’re supposed to be looking for “food” notes – not this other nasty stuff that grosses us out.
I will say that if you sense any of the aromas or – god forbid – flavors that I listed above, you’re almost DEFINITELY looking at a faulty spirit. Each of these notes can be caused by one or more microbial taints that infiltrates the product before or after distillation – usually in the fermentation or barrel-aging process.
Vinegary aromas can be caused by acetic acid or lactobacillus, then there’s the barfy, sorta Parmisean cheese smell you get from Butyric acid. You get a stale, paint-thinner-like smell from acrolein taint. You get feet and rotten eggs from phosphine gas or sulphured barrels. The list goes on and on and on.
IF you encounter one of these truly vile aromas, I would recommend that you do not continue drinking the booze. It might not kill ya, but it CAN’T be good for ya. What you CAN do is try to isolate where in the process this fault might be coming from. The best way to clear a whole chunk of potential issues off the board is to ask if the spirit is barrel-aged. If not, this eliminates sulfur and pretty much anything that would be caused by a dirty, dry, or poorly stored barrel.
That means that if you’re drinking a clear spirit, your big-time faults are almost always due to some contamination in their ingredient supply chain or in their mashing and fermentation process. These contamination sources can usually be fixed pretty quickly by revamping production practices and ensuring that you’re not just operating in a “clean” workspace, but a truly “sanitary” one when it comes to surfaces that your mash will touch.
Heads or Tails
There are a few distilling-related problems that really straddle the line between a fault and a flaw. Too much of these compounds, and you’ve got a really undrinkable product, but if just a little is present, you might barely even notice.
Many of you will be familiar with the terms “heads” and “tails,” which indicate the beginning and end of a distillation run, respectively. Most distillers will “cut” these out of the main run that they plan to bottle or age – which is referred to as the hearts. But if these cuts are made lazily or sloppily, you might end up with a serious flaw. So let’s look at the technical terms for booze that suffers from bad cuts.
Beginning with the heads, the important thing to know is that the compounds found in this portion of a distilling run are very light and have a lower boiling point than the hearts or tails. The elephant-in-the-room compound here is known as “methanol,” which basically smells like nail polish remover. This is the chemical responsible for unpleasant phenomena like “moonshine blindness” and other fun side-effects, but it needs to be present in really significant quantities before you need to worry about getting sick. Not saying you should go around trying to test that hypothesis, but medical side-effects are very rare except in very rustic distilling operations.
A word of caution here – methanol, in case you couldn’t tell, is very closely related to ethanol. So if you’re nosing a bunch of different spirits, and you’re like: oh no! These all smell like methanol! That means you’re just smelling ethanol and maybe you should be nosing a little bit farther from the glass. Methanol has a much more nose-hair-burning quality to it, so if you truly come across it in a spirits tasting context, you’ll know.
In the tails portion of the distilling run, we come across what are called “fusel oils,” which are the high-alcohol compounds that are heavier, oilier, and have a higher boiling point than the hearts. These compounds are actually created during fermentation, but the reason why fusel oils are generally considered a distilling flaw is because they can be pretty reliably cut out of the process. Unlike a headsy spirit containing methanol, there’s some disagreement on how to detect fusel oils. Some people perceive them as chemical cleaner aromas, whereas others tend to experience them as “burnt” or “overcooked” sensations in the spirit.
The true catch with methanol and fusel oils is that they can’t be truly identified as “faults” unless the flavors or aromas are so overbearing as to make the spirit undrinkable or unsafe. In fact, there are a number of distilling cultures – notably Mezcal – that actively blend some heads and/or tails back into the finished spirit to add flavor and texture, so not only do you have to account for category when evaluating the cuts your distiller made, but you also have to ask if those flavors seem intentional and if maybe, just maybe, they might be adding something to the flavor profile of the booze.
Moving on and situating ourselves safely in the “flaws” zone – instead of dealing with fatal faults – we need to talk about barrels (or “cooperage”) for a few minutes. Assuming your distiller is able to avoid putting their stuff in actively contaminated barrels, there’s still a lot of work to do if you want to produce a clean, delicious product. The places where I usually go to look for flaws are cooperage sourcing and the three-way calculus problem of barrel size, char level, and time.
Just like raw materials for making booze, distillers need to source their barrels. If you’re making bourbon, you need an un-used, charred American oak barrel. These things are expensive and have been in extremely high demand for the past decade, which means that craft distillers are often forced to the back of the line or must resort to taking shortcuts. One such shortcut involves using barrels made from kiln-dried staves, which means that they were heated in an oven to rapidly accelerate the time it takes them to cure. This makes them more affordable to distillers, but unfortunately, there’s no substitute for staves that are left to slowly cure out in the sun and the elements. We’ll talk about what kiln-dried wood can do to a spirit in just a moment.
The other barrel sourcing issue you’ll encounter – and we came across this in a very notable way this year at ADI – is sulfured finishing barrels. These are generally filled with fortified wines like sherry, madeira, or port, then shipped to the US for distillers to use while finishing their fancy whiskeys. The problem is: fortified wines aren’t always boozy enough to prevent microbial activity, and the barrels have to be emptied before they cross the ocean, so many barrel brokers will clean these things out using sulfur or related compounds to prevent contamination. If you’re not careful with how you treat these barrels upon arrival, you can end up transferring that sulfur flavor straight to your otherwise beautiful end product.
The Barrel Dilemma
So with those two main cooperage sourcing problems in-mind, let’s move on to where it gets real tricky.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a brand new whiskey distiller. You’ve got enough funding for – let’s say 5 years – and the success of the whole operation hinges on your ability to distill and age delicious American whiskey.
You know that if you age your new-make product in full-sized oak barrels, it’ll take around 3-4 years before it’s ready to drink, and at that point, you’re almost out of runway! Thus begins the fateful trudge down the slippery slope of small barrels. First, you’re using 30 gallon barrels, then your barrel rep convinces you to step down to 15 gallons, and at that point, you’re just a hop, skip, and a jump away from using charred oak spirals and various oak extracts to make your juice. Not to say that there aren’t times and places for all these tools, but what we see a lot of new craft distillers doing is planning to start with these small barrels for the sake of revenue and then aiming to work their way up to full sized barrels down the line.
Unfortunately, this is like driving your car 50 miles on the highway in low gear with the goal of eventually shifting up a gear somewhere down the road. It’s a good way to break the car.
Then we have the char question. Simply put, there are different “levels” of barrel char. They are described as levels 1-5, with one being a light kiss with flame and five being an absolutely incinerated inner barrel. The more char, the more surface area there is for the whiskey to work its way into – this technically speeds up extraction (but only in a manner of speaking). It gets the whiskey very dark very quickly, but you end up sacrificing some of the benevolent effects of oxidation over a long, slow maturation period in exchange.
So here’s the final picture. We’ve got lots of craft distillers fighting for the barrel scraps that the big bourbon houses don’t want. The barrel brokers and their own investors team up to convince you to release some “young” whiskey made using small barrels that are charred to a crisp on the inside. Oh, and by the way, these barrels were made using kiln dried staves, which contribute their own less-than-desirable flavors to the mix.
You mash and ferment a beautiful distiller’s beer. You run it through your brand new, expensive pot still, making sure to get the cuts juuuust right, and then you stick it in your tiny, burnt-out barrels for 6 months like your investors asked you to.
Identifying Barrel Flaws
A lot of this is what we see at craft spirits competitions. Barrel flaws are some of the easiest to pick out because they almost always have a chemesthetic effect on the palate. They either dry your mouth out, or they leave a burnt, cindery flavor with a bitter finish, and sometimes they even fall completely flat, offering a spirit with almost no body or texture.
Actually, the first place to spot a barrel flaw is before you even nose the spirit. If you know how old it is, you can look at the color and see if it looks either too light or too dark to be that old (regardless of what barrel size you think the distiller may have used). And speaking of color, both kiln dried wood and rapidly-aged booze can display a greenish or greyish hue to the spirit, which is a dead giveaway that you’re about to taste something sub-par.
In some cases – like in rum and French brandy – you’ll also see flavor additives used to provide some color and perhaps even cover up some of the cosmetic flaws in the booze. This, too, can be handled either well or poorly, but if you’re starting with a spirit that’s already been blasted into oaky outer space, then there’s not much a bit of caramel coloring is going to do to cover that up.
In the end, spirits judges usually look for spirits that display barrel characteristics that are appropriate for the amount of time they’ve spent in oak. That means if you’ve got a 1 year spirit, we’re hoping that it’s reasonably light and that the oak isn’t overpowering – because there’s no way it has any right to be at that age.
Are we aware of the plight that distillers face when sourcing barrels? Absolutely. But that means we’re even more incentivized to praise and award those distillers who find ways to rise above the problem and forge their own solution and flavor identity. That’s how the marketplace grows and evolves.
As I mentioned, flaws aren’t technically faults, and drinking an over-oaked, young whiskey isn’t going to hurt you. But it’s certainly a heck of a lot nicer to enjoy something that checks all the craft boxes without coming with some of that unfortunate baggage that accompanies learning a complicated science and art form like distillation.
This episode was made possible with editing and sound design by Samantha Reed and a little bit of spirits flaw magic by yours truly. This has been a Modern Bar Cart production, copyright 2021.
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