Welcome to Episode 239 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Eric Kozlik.
This time around, we’ll explore the world of structured tastings: tastings that go above and beyond the little samplers you get when you visit a distillery or a fancy whiskey bar. But this begs the question: what do I mean by “structured.”
At an intuitive level, if you’re interested in beer, wine, cider, mead, spirits, or cocktails…I think you GET what I’m trying to say. A structured tasting is one where you don’t just grab from a bank of possible options. And don’t get me wrong, I love visiting a local brewery when I’m traveling and telling the bartender I’d like a sample flight consisting of their hazy Irish Red, their diet milk stout, their lingonberry shandy, and their pilsner…but that’s not a structured tasting. That’s utter chaos. It might be delicious, but it’s all about what I think I like, and doesn’t begin to make any progress toward the actual quality (in a value sense) or qualities (in a descriptive sense) of the products involved.
At a technical level, a structured tasting is one where certain variables are controlled and manipulated. Your approach toward manipulating these variables generally denotes the KIND of tasting that you’ll engage in. Most of them have pretty straightforward names, and we’ll go through them in a list-wise fashion in just a minute here.
But before we do, I just want to take a minute to think out-loud about WHY we engage in structured tastings of the liquids we enjoy drinking – whether that structured tasting takes place at home, in the company of family or friends, at a winery or distillery where the products are created, or even in formal judging settings or controlled sensory studies.
Generally, when you carefully manipulate a variable in a structured tasting, you’re trying to learn something very specific about either your own palate, or the liquid in front of you, and by extension the people and raw inputs responsible for it. The latter is especially true when it comes to “Vertical” and “Horizontal” tastings, which are extremely popular in the wine world, and which we’ll cover in-depth in just a minute.
Types of Structured Wine and Spirits Tastings
First things first, it’s important to note that not all these types of tastings are going to be great fits for all beverages and for people of all experience levels – so when I explain a style of structured tasting, I’m going to try and take some time to work through what it’s best suited for, and for which types of distillates or ferments it might be most effective.
Next, I’ve gotta admit that our first style of structured tasting is actually TWO styles – but in my mind, the distinction between these two styles is what splits the structured tasting world in two just like the Treaty of Tordesillas.
Blind vs. Non- Blind Tastings
This distinction is between blind tastings and non-blind tastings and as we go through the remainder of the list, you’ll notice that each of the styles we explore will fall into one of these two buckets. If you haven’t put this together already, a blind tasting is one in which you don’t know the precise identity of the liquid in your glass, and a non-blind tasting is one in which that information is available to you.
Now the question becomes: if you’re conducting a blind tasting, HOW MUCH information will the tasters have about the liquid in front of them. If it’s a barrel-aged spirit, will they know which KIND of spirit it is? If it’s a red wine, will they know if it’s from a certain region, or made with a certain grape? Or, will this be a completely blind situation where the taster is really pushed to use their senses to track down the identity of what they’re nosing and tasting?
In one sense, a blind tasting is really great for eliminating bias, so in most of the structured tastings conducted by professionals where they’re gathering sensory data from experts, the person or organization that sets up the test will make sure that the participants are blind to at least some degree. This is because knowing things about what’s in your glass inevitably leads to unconscious associations and assumptions that can create a type of contamination that affects your objective experience of the liquid. So in situations where money or awards are on the line, blind tastings are a stay against the mental baggage we all bring into our flavor experiences.
But what if that mental baggage isn’t always a source of contamination? What if it could be a source of context that allows us to explore and compare our tastings of different ferments and distillates with an eye toward the larger forces at work, like terroir, culture, and style?
Well, this is where non-blind tastings really shine. And by way of example, the first two structured tastings we’ll examine during the heart of this list should give you a couple clear reasons why non-blind tastings can be so interesting. Those styles are vertical and horizontal tastings.
A vertical tasting, as its name implies, is like a really specific drill-down into the offerings of a single producer over time. Most often, you encounter these in the wine world, where the term “vintage” (which refers to the wine produced from a single year’s crop of grapes) dictates a great deal of the value of a given bottling. This is because the character of a grape can vary wildly based on precipitation, temperature, and other environmental factors – so when you hear someone say, “oh it was a good year or a bad year” in a certain wine region they’re referring to the average effect of the weather that year on the product quality of a whole bunch of producers.
In its native, winey environment, a vertical tasting allows you to taste the same offering from a producer across a number of vintages, which can show you two important factors, each in relief of the other:
Of course, as I mentioned, you’ll have information about the weather and yields produced that year – essentially, the geographical terroir. But the fact that you’re only tasting through the wines of a single producer will allow you to contextualize that meteorological information using your palate.
For example, let’s say we’re talking about four wines – all the same label made by the same Bordeaux producer. Two of these wines come from good – but not spectacular vintages. And two come from decidedly bad vintages. One of the bad vintages was bad because it was too dry, and one was bad because it rained way too much. The nice thing here is that you’ve got a baseline with your two average-to-good vintages that let you know what this winemaker is capable of when things are normal. Now you taste the two reportedly “bad” vintages, where the region was subjected to adverse weather. In the dry year, you notice that the wine just seems like a shell of its former self. The flavors seem muted, muffled, anemic. But, when you taste the offering from the “bad because too wet” vintage, you notice some surprising NEW flavors and aromas. Maybe they’re atypical of what you would expect from a normal bottling…but you know what? You kinda like this slightly off-beat wine. It’s different in INTERESTING ways – not because it’s lacking flavor or structure or whatever else went wrong in the dry year.
Then you get out your soil map of Bordeaux – because that’s a thing. It’s definitely a thing. Maybe this maker has better drainage than surrounding Chateaux. Maybe they’re doing something interesting with biodynamic practices. Or maybe there’s just something about the way this particular producer makes wine that suits them to wetter weather and really handicaps them when it’s dry.
This is the type of rich, associative detective work you can do in a non-blind tasting, where you let your palate operate like a bloodhound, tracking down aromas and flavors, but you get the liberty of keeping your eyes up, scanning the horizon for clues about everything else that’s going on.
But what if you’re not into wine? Where else in the beverage world can you encounter a vertical tasting?
Well, the beer world has seen a good deal of this in the past decade, with brands that make higher-alcohol stouts and barleywines putting out annual releases that can be aged in your cellar and that will continue to develop in a neutral or positive way, rather than just getting skunky and flat, like most lower-ABV beers. So the ability to conduct a vertical tasting in the beer world is on the table, but it’s certainly a more limited occurrence.
In the spirits world, you can also conduct vertical tastings by collecting annual releases from (generally) larger distilleries, and usually those that produce Scotch and Bourbon. But, it’s important to keep in mind that this type of tasting is vertical more in name than in practice. Yes – it’s true that many whiskey casks are subject to the same meteorological vicissitudes that grape vines experience, with fluctuations in temperature and humidity playing an important role in the end product. But when you consider that these fluctuations are averaged out over a number of years in the cask, and when you consider that most final whiskey offerings are blended anyway, you pretty much lose any connection to the land. You’re simply buying into what a blender is TELLING you may be different from year to year.
This is why, in the whiskey world – and especially in Bourbon, vertical tastings have been replaced largely by a focus on different mash bills, cask finishes, and single barrels (or barrel picks – for more on that, check out my interview with OJ Lima in Episode 229). These are the offerings from a single producer that enthusiasts can latch onto and probe for similarities and differences with the rest of a given portfolio, but that aren’t tied so much to the natural ebb and flow of weather, as in wine.
This brings us to horizontal tastings. Instead of offering a narrow, dense core sample of information, these tastings take a big, wide, airy swipe across a given region or category with the goal of comparing offerings BETWEEN producers. But just because a horizontal tasting is more generous in scope doesn’t mean it’s “sloppy.” You’re still controlling for variables like time and place.
Again, the wine world offers perhaps the best, purest examples of horizontal tastings because of the vintage system. Because each year can be radically different from the next, it actually merits considering the offerings of various producers using liquid from the same harvest.
Imagine you sit down with a kid every day for seven days, and each day you give that a piece of paper and a box of crayons, and you say: “Go nuts. Draw whatever you want.”
Now imagine you sit down one day with seven kids. You give each of those kids the same box of crayons and the same blank sheet of paper, and tell them the same thing.
What’s different about these two scenarios?
Well in the first, what you’re tracking is the progression of a single artist in a vacuum over a number of iterative occurrences. And in the second, you’re tracking what happens when a number of artists are engaged in a single project right next to one another. Chances are, if you actually ran this experiment in real life, the kids would know each other. They’d look at what their neighbors were drawing. Maybe influence their friends with kind or unkind words.
This is exactly what can happen in any beverage producing community, and a horizontal tasting not only takes a snapshot of what a given vintage looks like from a weather standpoint, but it also can give you a sense of the “zeitgeist” of a place and time.
Because horizontal tastings are a little less rigid than vertical ones, they’re a little easier to adapt to the worlds of beer and spirits. In beer, you can say: “hey, let’s to a horizontal tasting of four or five different regional IPA releases this spring.” And in the world of spirits, you can get even more general and say, “let’s do a horizontal tasting of the entry-level wheated bourbon blends from these five different producers in Kentucky.”
As with the vertical tastings, you largely lose the strong effects of terroir when you venture into been and whiskey. But remember, the point of a horizontal tasting is to use your palate to learn something about a whole group of different producers, and that doesn’t necessarily require anything from the weather.
Vertical and horizontal tastings can be conducted and enjoyed by people of all skill levels. But behind closed doors…there’s another world–a world where people wear lab coats and examine liquids under microscopes and say words like “organoleptic.” This is the world we’re about to enter. And I’m about to spill some knowledge that might allow you to side-step the lab coat and play around with these less-well-known structured tastings at home.
The first one I’d like to look at is called a triangle tasting, also known as a triangle test. This is a blind structured tasting, in which a taster is offered three samples. Two are the same, and one is different. The job of the taster is to identify which sample is different, and thereby, which two are the same.
But besides being a neat parlor trick if executed properly, what is the purpose of a triangle tasting?
Well, as I mentioned, we’re in the world of lab coats here. So usually we’re not doing a triangle tasting with two rums and a gin. Normally, you’re manipulating one or two subtle variables and using the feedback of a taster to determine if that manipulation results in significant observational differences.
Triad and Duo-Trio Tests
There are two “riffs” on a triangle test that I think are worth bringing up here – not so much because they’re RADICALLY different, but because they show how many different ways you can challenge your senses using a mere three samples.
The first is, essentially, an upside-down triangle test, where instead of picking the one sample that is different from the two others, a taster is charged with identifying the two samples that are the same, leaving one as the outlier. I’ve heard this approach referred to as a “triad” test, but I’m having a lot of trouble verifying that using solely online sources, so you’ll have to pardon me if I’m incorrect on that. One slight problem with this field, once you get into lab coat territory, is that a lot of it lies behind paywalls and is conducted in the walled garden of university labs.
The other three-sample, blind structured tasting you can try is called a Duo-Trio test. In this version, you’re given one sample as a “reference,” and then you’re asked to pick which of the two remaining samples matches it.
When viewed side-by-side with vertical and horizontal tastings, a triangle, triad, or duo-trio tasting can come off as a bit of an anti-climax. It’s, at best, a 5-10 minute exercise, and then…what? You’re done?
This is where the lab coats have an advantage. Generally, these tastings are run using a large sample size of different tasters so that the results can be analyzed for statistical significance. That way, they can be applied to various production decisions down the line, with the goal being to improve or in some way manipulate the end product so that it’s more successful.
Conducting a Triangle Test at Home
But that all feels a bit sterile and businessy, doesn’t it? Which is why I think running the occasional triangle test at home is a really excellent way to train your palate to detect subtle flavor differences. And the best part is, it’s easy to try.
Let’s say you’ve got a bottle of Islay Scotch at home, or a Napa Valley Cabernet. Well, next time you go to the liquor store, pick up a second bottle that’s very similar in region and style, then have a friend or a family member set up the blind tasting for you. And, if you find that the color of your chosen liquids might be a dead giveaway as to the correct answer, you can always up the ante and conduct your tasting blindfolded – just make sure not to spill your samples all over the place.
As we exit the world of blind tastings, shedding our lab coats, we enter the domain of blended wines and spirits, which can compellingly be assessed using a technique called a “component tasting.”
This is…actually, kinda what it sounds like. When you have a whiskey blend, or even a blended wine, a component tasting allows you to extract those two or more components, assess them independently, and then consider how they operate in tandem in a final product. So you’re constantly shuffling between the individual ingredients and the finished blend and trying to pick out how the parts contribute to the whole.
One unique aspect of a component tasting is that – generally, you won’t be able to conduct this on your own. This isn’t like the soda fountain at a fast food restaurant where you can make your own Frankenstein drink by adding different sodas to your cup. Distilleries and wineries release blends that are carefully crafted by their own master blenders or blending teams to reflect the absolute best of what they have available in a given vintage, or resting in barrels in their rickhouse (i.e. stuff you don’t have available to you on shelves at liquor stores).
So the component tasting is generally – and unfortunately – reserved as an educational tool for those on- and off-premise professionals who are tasked with ultimately selling those bottles and pours to the end consumer. Most laypeople, unless you’ve got a really awesome distillery near you and you’re on their VIP mailing list, won’t have a chance to experience a component tasting.
Still, though, I think this is an opportunity. I’d love to see MORE distilleries and wineries offering this sort of interactive experience to the public. It’s a really under-valued way of showing people the kind of work you do in favor of the products you make, and if we’re lucky, hopefully the term and the practice will become more of an open discussion moving forward.
Inverted Component Tastings
This brings me to our final structured tasting format of the episode. And this is one that I didn’t even know existed until a little over a month ago at Tales of the Cocktail. Unfortunately, I have to keep the brand and blend details a bit generic because I’m trying to do a write-up of this event to see if I can get it published in print, but suffice it to say: I took part in what I can only call and “inverted component tasting.”
What the HECK does that mean?
Well, there’s a brand that’s out there launching a new blended whiskey, and this whiskey has a bunch of different blend components. It’s complicated. It took a long time and a lot of resources for this rather large company to put out this product. And when they walked me and a bunch of other drinks journalists through the blend, they did something rather ingenious:
Instead of simply presenting us with the lineup of blend components and letting us taste them alone, one-by-one, they instead presented us with a lineup of MOSTLY finished blends, each with one component MISSING.
In this way, as we tasted through, and then proceeded to revisit glasses we had already nosed and tasted, we could begin to understand the role of each ingredient based on what was missing when it was gone. To me, this is a really intimate way to experience a complicated blend, and unfortunately, it’s not going to be the right way to approach most component tastings.
But in the right context, I think what this inverted component tasting does better than any other is put us in touch with the work of the master blender at a point in her or his process that most of us don’t have any insight into: the point where the blend is ALMOST where it needs to be, but where something is still missing.
If you’d like to make the argument that a great blend is more than the sum of its parts, this is a moment in the process that should do more work than any other to either prove or discredit the work of the hands and minds behind the liquid. So if I’m looking at smaller brands, and saying, “give us more component tastings,” then in the same vein, I’m looking toward those bigger brands out there and advising them to take note of this striking, new way to offer an insight into the art and science of blending.