The world of liquor is one of intimidation, pretension, and complexity. That’s scary for a lot of people. We run into this all the time when we invite people to a tasting or perhaps a more formal drink.
“I’m not an expert… I just know what I like!” declares the average person (with some degree of defiance and heat). “I don’t even know what makes something good or bad or whatever!”
It doesn’t have to be that hard and it shouldn’t be that intimidating. The Proof66 Staff is finely honed by a decade of “street training.” We’ve tried all kinds of shenanigans. Based on that, here’s a 3-part, easy-to-follow guide on what makes something “good.”
Armed with this knowledge, you can approach any spirit without intimidation (brush it off!), able to imitate pretension (if you like), and start on a lifelong (and awesome!) journey to appreciate the complexity.
What is Good?!
Let's explore that comment: “I don’t know but I know it when I drink it!”
People say that about art. They say that about music. They say that about physical attractiveness of people. Well, duh! It’s all about individual taste at the end of the day.
You may like your liquor rough and ready. We know people who want it to burn all the way down because they’re fighting off Wisconsin winter, a flu virus, or the memory of a recent break-up.
You may like your liquor light and aromatic like flowers in June because you’re reminded of love and planting season on the farm.
You may like your liquor in a brobdignanian snifter warmed by a candle flame oozing aromas of ancient wood because you’re reminded of your Harvard law degree and future nomination to the US Supreme Court.
That’s all individual stuff. What makes something “good” is technical execution. Let’s get real: “proper” execution is nothing more than a consensus of experts on what people “should” be making. And the experts, over time, get pretty good at this stuff. But at the end of the day, assessing “good” in the general sense is a recognition of where the bell-curve sits in a sea of experts.
You can sit anywhere you like on that bell curve! But it’s good to know where the consensus is.
Part 1: “Smooth” and “Rough”
Just about 99% of all early-drinkers have exactly one comment on things that they like: “smooth.” It’s the kind of remark that makes a pro roll their eyes. Well, screw those guys!
Here’s the deal with “smooth.” You know that burning sensation you get when you gulp some booze? It sears your mouth and burns all the way down to the stomach? The absence of that pain is generally what people regard as smooth.
Rule: good booze should be warming; never burning. That fiery sensation is usually a sign of alcohols other than ethanol (translation: clumsy distillation).
How to tell Smooth from Rough:
- Examine the proof! High proof things (like 90 proof plus) are going to taste “hotter” than lower proof stuff (80 proof and below—a lot of flavored vodka is 60 and 70 proof and will automatically taste “smoother” even if they aren’t technically). A Russian vodka nerd named Mendeleev decided that the perfect tasting proof was 76, which eventually got rounded up to 80 and is the standard today for many spirits.
- a. 60 -79 proof: you should taste almost no burn.
- b. 80 -90 proof: you should taste a little warming.
- c. 90 – 100 proof: expect some fire; don’t be afraid to add a little water.
- d. >100 proof: it’ll taste like acid no matter what unless you’re a distiller who drinks this stuff at high proof every single day. Don’t do that. Add water.
- Sip—don’t gulp!—but sip a bit of the spirit. Sip it like it’s really hot coffee! Then let it sit on your tongue for a minute, then swallow.
- a. Did it give you a tingling sensation? That’s called a “needle.” Totally undesirable at lower proofs; expected very mildly at middle proofs; and highly expected at higher proofs.
- b. Did it warm you on the way down and make you smile a bit? That’s a good sign at middle and even high proofs.
- c. Did it burn you like a crazy Latino chef spraying aerosolized ghost pepper extract?
Part 2: “Right” vs “Wrong”
Experts feel good about themselves when they can recognize and name things. That’s why critics get absurdly cheerful about finding the most obscure flavor notes. That way, they can grin at each other and, with tremendous mutual admiration, claim that they can recognize “pencil shavings” and “fresh cut hay” (those are actual tasting notes).
But more importantly, you should know what you’re getting into before you drink something. Have an expectation and see if the thing lives up to that expectation (or exceeds it!). Nothing can be more reasonable.
Also, it’s unfair to hate something for what it is. Take gin. Gin is, by definition, flavored with juniper.
It will smell and taste like a tree. Sambuca is, by definition, flavored with anise. It will smell and taste like black licorice. You can’t say gin or Sambuca is terrible if you hate tree and black licorice. Rather, assess it to see if it lived up reasonably to what it its.
Rule: know what you’re drinking and don’t hate it for what it’s supposed to be.
How to tell if something’s “right”:
- Read the label! Duh! Is it a London dry gin? Look for juniper. A rum? Look for molasses. Is it tequila? Look for flowers and nectar? Scotch? Better look for some smoke. Et cetera. Is the label something like “aquavit” and you’ve never heard it before? Read the label’s fine print and see what it says. Or, for god’s sake, you have the internet at your fingertips: look it up on Wikipedia! Whatever the case, imagine in your head what is being promised to you.
- Smell with the aroma in mind. Don’t push your nose in it like you’re an addict trying to snort cocaine! Just waft it and see if it calls to mind what you’re being promised. Was the promise kept?
- Sip it. As above, don’t gulp, but sip. Does the flavor live up to the promise you were given?
If the promise is kept, then you’re drinking something that is at least decent. Sometimes, the flavor is more or better than expected. Now you’re looking at something special! Sometimes, the flavor is just wrong: declare it wrong! Critics will say things like “artificial” or “saccharine” or “candied,” which is usually code for “off.” (Occasionally they’ll even say “funky.”) If it is what it aimed for: compliment it. Then, if you don’t happen to like what it is, don’t ever drink it again!
Part 3: “Clean Distillation” vs “The Bathtub”
The hardest part is recognizing crappy alcohol. Nerd info: distillation is about isolating ethanol specifically. But “bad” alcohols come out of distillation as well, usually methyl alcohols or aldehydes. You might hear a distiller mutter something about “heads” and “tails” or “cuts.” Column distillation will solemnly promise you that they’re “fractionally distilling” multiple times in their columns.
Another nerd note: hangovers are caused by too much alcohol, no question. But bad alcohol in the sense of these other alcohols make you feel a lot worse. That’s why people say good alcohol doesn’t give them hangovers. That’s bullshit, of course: if you drink 12 shots of something, you’re going to be the sickest person you ever felt and maybe in the hospital no matter what it is. But you might feel even worse if it has lots of this other stuff in it.
More nerd info: “bathtub gin” killed people and made them go blind because of too much methanol instead of ethanol. There’s a little methanol in crappy liquor.
Biggest nerd info of all: know what the antidote for methanol or anti-freeze poisoning is? Ethanol! Your local ER, we’re told, keeps a bottle of vodka around and if someone comes in with methanol poisoning, they give them some vodka!! (Hopefully of good quality.)
Know all that marketing around 2x distilled or 3x distilled or ManyX distilled? Whatever. Most of it is bullshit. All of this is supposed to do one thing: get ethanol in the bottle and leave that other crap out.
Ethanol doesn’t taste like much (it just burns until it’s diluted). It doesn’t smell like much. But that other stuff can have a definite taste and aroma. Over time, you can learn to recognize it. Bottom shelf liquor in plastic jugs, obviously, cares less about what gets in that bottle with the ethanol.
Rule: avoid bottom shelf crap. Or, if you must, bury it in lots of mixer.
How to Tell if You Have Crappy Liquor:
- You bought it in bulk, in a large plastic jug, off the bottom shelf, you’ve never heard of it before, and it’s not listed on Proof66. That doesn’t mean that if it’s not listed on Proof66 it’s automatically bad; just that it’s a clue to use along with the rest.
- Methyl alcohols often smell like cleaning solution. Does your liquor smell like cleaning solutions?
- Aldehydes often have an oily texture and a moldy aftertaste. Does your liquor feel oily and finish like wet mold?
That’s it. This one should be easy. The pros don’t talk about this because, after a little training, these things become easy to spot and professionals simply don’t acknowledge them.
Bonus: The Stinky Cheese
Critics are critics because they’ve tasted a lot of stuff. The Proof66 partnership, comprising 4 people, has tasted loads of liquor. Together, at the time of this writing, we number about 450 bottles of liquor in our personal bars! Just like anything, when you taste that much stuff, the “usual” can get boring even if it’s well-done.
After all, even great sex can get hard to recognize as “great” if it’s always the same program.
Because of that, critics are unnaturally attracted to bold, giant, in-your- face flavors (as long as they’re recognizable, see above). We call this the “stinky cheese” problem. This is because, in the world of cheese competitions, it’s notorious that the “stinkiest cheese always wins!” Why? Because it’s the only cheese that stands out in a sea of normalcy.
Same thing with booze. Be just ever-so-skeptical of critical results that come to higher-proof spirits, longer-aged spirits, or heavily-flavored spirits. They’ll still be good! But they’ll be kind of a stinky-cheese good; you may need a little “experience” in order to recognize that greatness.
Critics who call things “mild” or “approachable” or (sorry, it’s not us) “feminine” are usually complimenting something very well-done that’s simply not as exciting as other “stinky cheese” spirits.
Rule: if you find yourself with something that’s supposed to be good but is blowing you off your barstool every time you try it, add water