The Practical Enjoyment of Distilled Spirits & Fortified Wines
© 2011 F. Paul Pacult
If you drink, don't drive. Don't even putt.
The following are various random thoughts on the storage and service of distilled spirits and fortified wines.
In terms of storage, fortified wines should be stored in "cellar conditions" as you would keep fine still or sparkling wines. Keep your ports, sherries, and madeiras in a cool (48 - 55 degrees Fahrenheit), moderately humid (40%-70%), and dark space (bright light hurts just about any kind of alcoholic beverage). Lay them on their sides to keep the cork moist. Dry corks crumble and shrink, allowing air to invade the bottle, thereby accelerating the aging process. Only vintage ports age further in the bottle. All other ports, plus sherries, are ready to be consumed upon purchase. Vintage madeiras age in bottle.
Once fortified wines are open, they should be consumed as soon as possible. Fino and manzanilla sherries are the ones that need the quickest consumption. Once you've opened a fino, manzanilla, or even an amontillado sherry, drink it within two days. Keep it refrigerated. With port, madeira, and stouter sherries, such as olorosos, palo cortados, and all creams, a period of one week to ten days is the absolute maximum that they should be allowed to remain open. Once the seal is broken, fortified wines become quite vulnerable.
As far as distilled spirits go, no bottle aging is required. You'd be amazed at how many times I've been asked the question, "How long should I age my bottles of single malt Scotch and cognac?". Once a whiskey, brandy, white spirit or liqueur is bottled, the maturing process ceases. All maturation occurs in the oak cask or holding tank. Distilled spirits are ready to be consumed immediately. Once you've opened a bottle of Scotch, bourbon, brandy, liqueur, or white spirits, it will remain drinkable for up to a year in most cases, but only if you keep it well sealed and out of heat and direct light. I personally don't leave bottles of spirits unconsumed for longer than two to three months at the very longest. I notice dramatic differences after a month or more.
As far as storage for distilled spirits goes, I prefer to keep my best spirits in the cellar until they are open. Excessive heat is not good for any type of alcoholic beverage even if it remains unopened. I tend to treat my finer distilled spirits as I do my fortified wines and still wines and keep them in the cellar.
Glassware is always a hot topic at tastings that I conduct. The reason is simple, I use one type of glass for spirits and fortified wines. A narrow-bowled wine glass or a Spanish copita, the traditional fino sherry glass used in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. I have been urging readers and tasting participants to get away from using snifters for their brandies and whiskies because, aside from the fact that they're bloody ugly, they do nothing to enhance the aroma of spirits. In fact, the shape of a fat snifter actually forces the smell of any spirit to dissipate too quickly, thereby robbing the drinker of one of the most important stages of enjoyment. A glass with a narrow, cylindrical bowl funnels the aroma straight up into the nasal cavity. Think narrow and cylindrical, not broad and open.
Also in the same vein and against custom, do not warm your brandies and whiskies with your hands or, worse, over a candle flame. Heat forces the aromatic properties to break up and vaporize too rapidly. There must have been a think tank of imbeciles decades ago which existed to create these outlandish and totally wrong serving rituals, like warming spirits and serving them in balloon glasses. Give me strength. Perhaps these numbskulls imbibed too much to think clearly.
Call me a creature of habit, but I likewise find the Spanish copita to be the glass of choice for all fortified wines, not just sherry. Since I put such highly valued stock on my ability to smell, this type of glass, which accentuates the aroma of any libation, suits me best. If you are a fan of snifters, then so be it. Just stay out of the city in which I'm living.
For liqueurs and superpremium tequilas and vodkas taken neat, I recommend very small one or two ounce cordial or shot glasses to concentrate the aromas and flavors. Small compartments heighten the intensity of liqueurs, tequilas, and vodkas. And, since only minute amounts of liqueurs and top grade tequilas and vodkas should be served, cordial and shot glasses are perfect.
Serving temperatures for whiskies and brandies should be slightly warmer than cellar temperature. I suggest that fine whiskies and brandies be served at between 55 - 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Ports, oloroso and cream cherry, and madeiras should be served at cellar temperature, which is 48 - 55 degress Fahrenheit. Fino and manzanilla sherry should be served ice cold at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Amontillado sherry at slightly below cellar temperature.
Vodkas, rums, gins, and tequilas served be served ice cold, except for when they are meant to be enjoyed neat. As a shot, tequila and vodka should be served at cellar temperature. Another myth is that vodka should be served ice cold. I don't hold to that because severe cold takes away the aroma. Liqueurs are at their best anywhere from 55 - 62 degrees Fahrenheit, except for cream-based liqueurs which should be served chilled (50 - 55 degrees) but not ice cold. Fruit brandies and eaux-de-vie should be served at cellar temperature.
In the matter of food accompaniment, of all distilled spirits and fortified wines, sherry makes the best companion for edibles. Indeed, the various types of sherry are frequently served through the course of a meal in Spain and are wonderful. Fino and manzanilla stimulate the appetite and complement light opening foods. Amontillado is a superb soup or salad course choice. Dry oloroso can go with lamb or stew main courses. And creams bring life to desserts.
Ports and madeiras are best kept to after dinner, except for white ports which can be served as an aperitif. Some ports go well with chocolate.
Distilled spirits are usually best on their own. I should point out, however, that there is a growing movement in the U.S. which espouses whiskey being paired with three or four courses of a meal. I've hosted several whiskey and food events in the last couple of years. I've been surprised at how well small amounts of single malt Scotch or bourbon can bring a new dimension to certain types of food.
The evenings have typically begun with lighter whiskies being served as aperitifs or with light, usually salty hors d'oeuvres. Next, the soup course is accompanied by slightly deeper whiskies. The main course, normally a red meat or game course, is washed down by a dry, but complex whiskey while the dessert course is joined by a sweeter, heavier style of whiskey. It works, but it's not for everyone. At this stage, I do not envision bourbon or single malt replacing wine as a dinner staple.
Most importantly, for all the expert suggestions and kibitzing, spirits and fortified wines should be enjoyed on our own terms, but always with the good sense of moderation. Certainly, you've heard it before, but I'll say it anyway because it's necessary and it bears repeating: It's plain stupid to drink, then drive, period. There is no excuse good enough for asinine behavior and that's all there is to it. Also, if you're pregnant, it's imperative to ask your doctor about whether or not he/she thinks you should refrain from imbibing during pregnancy. To my way of thinking, why take the chance?
It's amazing how far common sense can promote health and a long, productive future. If there's one thing I've learned about the alcoholic beverage community at large, it's that no one wants anyone to get injured because of the misuse of alcohol. Just the opposite. Every single person I know in the industry speaks out on the importance of personal responsibility. When someone gets hurt, we all get hurt. Distilled spirits and fortified wines are some of the most delightful perks to living a good life, but only if they're perceived as ornaments to be handle with extreme care, not as essential equipment.
In an age of so-called "political correctness" where personal freedoms are increasingly threatened, distilled spirits and all alcoholic beverages are under serious and steady attack both from a well-meaning constituency with legitimate concerns (Mother's Against Drunk Driving) and an ill-informed, reactionary constituency with an agenda whose sole aim is the control of other's lifestyles and thoughts (the Christian right wing). Yet, freedom, by its very nature, doesn't tolerate intolerance nor does it allow only a single voice to be heard in the heated debate of alcohol's place in society. This discussion, which at times has broken down into warfare, has colored the Twentieth Century. The 1990s have been yet another decade in which the sensory desires of the moderate many have been at direct odds with the conservative views of the belligerent few, who have yet to unyoke themselves from the unenlightened dogma of the seventeenth century Puritans.
Despite the constant drum beat of the evils of alcohol from the conservative extremists, spirits are at an unprecedented pinnacle of recognition in the U.S. Once the remarkably misguided experiment of Prohibition fizzled miserably by the early 1930s, legal drinking rose dramatically until the world became wrapped up in war in the early 1940s. The post-war era of the 1950s and 1960s was proved to be an open bar as people across the world enjoyed their new prosperity with the popular whiskies, gins, and brandies of the day. The best hour of the day was Happy Hour during this "What are you drinking" era that lasted two and a half decades. Consumers, especially in America, were flushed with success and enthusiasm for the present and the future. Drinking was a celebration of the period, as well as a vehicle for making friends and closing business deals.
The people born after World War Two, however, chose a different path once they became legal drinking age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By large measure, they rejected their parents' lifestyle of Scotch-on-the-rocks and canapés and, instead, selected, no doubt through peer pressure, the road either of abstinence or that of lighter, less aggressive alcoholic beverages like wine coolers, beer, or fine wine. Distilled spirits became icons of the "plastic" generation in the eyes of the "flower" generation. As a result, sales of distilled spirits, in particular, the dark-colored types like whiskey and brandy, suffered severe drops in sales during the late 1970s and into the late 1980s.
Strange how life moves in cycles. As many of the post-war revolutionaries and radicals evolved into 1990s accountants, stock brokers, and investment bankers, their tastes reflected the natural deepening of the adult palate. With the worlds of beer and wine amply traversed by the Baby Boomers, newer, more profound challenges were desired. Along with the Nicole Miller ties and the Armani suits came the sensory requirement for a grander alcohol experience. Enter single malt Scotch, vintage port, Grande Champagne cognac, single barrel and small batch bourbon, 100% blue agave anejo tequila, oak-aged rum, almacenista sherry, and boutique grappa and brandy.
Today, as we stand peering into the approaching face of a new millennium, distilled spirits, especially the upper echelon products, are the darlings not only of the well-heeled, but likewise of increasing numbers of the wannabe well-heeleds. Generation X is definitely going upscale. It's not so much a new era as much as it is something of a replay of the late 1930s and the late 1950s decorated with different shadows. Instead of William Powell mixing a martini drier than the Sahara, or Sean Connery as 007 asking for his martini to be shaken and not stirred, it's Tom Cruise making one in the 1988 movie, titled "Cocktail".
Drink well, drink wisely, and you may very well prosper.