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On Matters of Taste:
How I Taste and Why

© 2008 F. Paul Pacult
All rights reserved.

People occasionally query, quite rightly, how I evaluate the thousands of spirits, wines and beers for F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal, Wine Enthusiast, The New York Times, Sky, the Delta Air Lines in-flight magazine and the other publications for which my wife and I write. On rough tasting mornings when I've trudged my way through a series of mediocre to horrible products, I find myself asking Sue, "Why do I do this?" more than how.

Jaded viewpoint honed over thirty years aside, the how is of vital importance, I believe, because it assures the people who subscribe to the SJ or follow our tasting adventures through our other columns and outlets that what they are reading is the result of solid, impartial and systematic fact-finding. Credibility is the only virtue worth having for any critic of any field, be it cars, movies, books, spirits, theatre, wines, et cetera. Believability and trust between reader and critic are built upon four things: credibility, hard work, doing the required research and owning an evaluation system that is adhered to at all cost over the long haul.

Makes you a bit misty, doesn't it?

The role that critics play in any discipline
I am a staunch believer in blunt, but constructive criticism. People say, "Yeah, yeah. But it's all a matter of subjectivity." I answer, "That's correct. However, the best criticism is expert subjectivity that raises it close to pure objectivity." Huh? Let me explain. Sue and I love movies and theatre. We find that critics, such as Roger Ebert, David Denby, Leonard Maltin and Anthony Lane for movies and Ben Brantley and John Lahr for theatre save us time and sometimes money by helping to steer us in the direction of the type of movie or play we have come to prefer. While we may not agree with them all the time, we do listen to what they have to say on a regular basis because they spend more time than we do researching their field and watching movies and plays. We've come to accept that they know what they are talking about. They are experts; we are not in those individual areas.

The same holds true for beverage alcohol critics. It is my express hope that my taking the time to thoroughly taste through scores of wines, beers and spirits every month will assist anyone, neophyte or maven, trade person or average consumer, who goes out and spends money on beverage alcohol. To be sure, there will be times when the reader might think "Man, Pacult's way off on this one. He should have given it four stars, not two." Fair enough. But it is my goal, our goal as a publication to have readers know that the majority of the time they can go into a restaurant or retail shop, look at the SJ, order a recommended product and feel safe about making that decision.

I'm delighted when someone calls, e-mails or tells me face-to-face that they tried so-and-so single malt whisky and it was everything and more that I said it was. Mission accomplished, in my book. I likewise find that the letters, e-mails of argument, polite disagreement and dissent just as important. I like the dialogue. I like the differing of opinion. It's the communication that, in part, makes my job fun for me.

The key to reaping the benefit of qualified, worthwhile criticism, I have come to think, is finding a critic(s) and sticking with them for a while to get to know them. If your taste seems to jive with theirs, then more than likely that's a reliable source of information that suits your taste. We have SJ subscribers who have been with us since 1991. Others come and go. Still others peel off after a couple of years because maybe they don't find my particular taste compatible with their own. That's the nature of criticism. Readers need to locate their own comfort level with the critic. If it's never reached, say goodbye and try someone else.

It's the system, stupid
To me, a critic's credibility is erected upon the foundation of and adherence to their own evaluation system. I do not claim to have secret formulas or hidden talents. I don't even have a crystal ball. The system that's worked so well for me probably wouldn't appeal to most critics and avid connoisseurs. It is extremely precise, admittedly anal-retentive and, without question, extremely finicky. I credit Sonoma County winemaker Rodney D. Strong with instilling in me my passion for wines when I worked for him in California in the 1970s and early 1980s. Moving on to include distilled spirits and beers in the late 1980s as part of my regular evaluation regimen dramatically changed the direction of my writing career. By continually evaluating all varieties of beverage alcohol, not just wine, for the last decade and a half I've come to comprehend how wine, beer and spirits are simultaneously linked yet distinct.

The equipment I require for the evaluation of all types of beverage alcohol products is minimal. I use only a dozen five to six-ounce, thin crystal Spanish copita glasses for the evaluation of all distilled spirits. I use standard, thin crystal eight-ounce red wine glasses for all wines, except for sparkling/champagne for which I use five-ounce crystal flutes. For all beers I employ the same six 12-ounce goblets. I wash my tasting glasses by hand, not using any soap or detergent and let them air-dry. I find that the employment of the same kind of high quality glass vessel time after time helps to maintain consistent examinations.

First, I pour out at least one ounce and as much as two ounces depending on how much of the sample I have. I never pour more than two ounces. I use an intensely bright desk lamp for the evaluation of the libation's appearance. I do not take kindly to seeing any sediment in any spirits, but am much more forgiving with wines and beers that often normally display sediment (big reds, ports) or cloudiness (wheat beers). Color is cosmetic in most cases and rarely influences my final score. The level of purity/clarity, though, is a different matter and absolutely can take away or add a star. Gauging appearance usually takes a minute or less.

I consider the nosing part of the evaluation for any spirit, beer or wine to be the most critical, often the make-or-break part of the critique because the sense of smell is the most powerful, stimulating, evocative and primitive of our senses. Smells paint the colors of taste and aftertaste. When an aroma is particularly elusive, distant or shy, I sometimes enlist the help of a unique collection of ordinary and exotic scents stored in small vessels that can frequently help me pinpoint or isolate an indistinct odor. I inhale deeply several times over the course of two minutes and make notes. I then allow the libation to sit undisturbed for another six to eight minutes, sniff deeply again several times and write my impressions. Air contact, as a matter of routine, assists in waking up a bouquet. If the bouquet seems closed down, I often swirl the glass to aerate the liquid. Of course, on the infrequent days when my sniffing apparatus is less than 100% due to allergies or a cold, I refrain from sampling that day. Nosing consumes about ten minutes.

Next, I taste a small portion of the libation, spit it out, taste it again and spit that out. I write down my thoughts. In most cases, that's enough tasting. Infrequently, I'll take longer if the taste is closed down. When a spirit is very high in alcohol, like a cask-strength whiskey, I will add mineral water to dilute it after both sniffing and tasting it unadulterated. The tasting phase usually takes up about two to three minutes.

Last, I take one more sizeable gulp, spit it out and savor the aftertaste on my tongue and in my throat. This takes about a minute. I write down my final impressions of the overall experience.

In the vast majority of situations, each wine, beer and spirit receives approximately 15 to 20 minutes of my undivided, uninterrupted attention. None ever receives less attention; a few get more. I taste either spirits or beers in the morning. I sample wine late in the afternoon right before dinner. I no longer sample blind and, therefore, am aware of the identity of every product that I'm tasting. This format has evolved on its own over thirty years in the business and it suits me.

The key element to this system is that I never vary from it. The integrity of my tasting system lies in the relentless repetition. I never evaluate any product formally in the presence of anyone that might be directly or indirectly related to the product. I ALWAYS FORMALLY EVALUATE AND RATE EVERY WINE, BEER AND SPIRIT ALONE IN MY OFFICE AT THE SPIRIT JOURNAL.

Even though my evaluations are highly detailed, I still believe that it's important to bestow a rating. I prefer the more benign method of employing one to five stars rather than the overly picayune 100-point system that is so prevalent at present. It's our personal choice, that's all.

The critic's reward: Occasional surprise
Tasting and evaluating thousands of alcoholic beverages each year can be mind and palate numbing if one's not careful. Therefore, I rarely evaluate more than eight spirits in one day, or more than twelve beers in a single sitting, or more than a 30 wines at a time. The most I'll ever taste in any given day is 30 libations. That is very rare. An average day's total for me is more in the 10 - 20 range.

The overwhelming number of products I evaluate ends up being in the two and three star range, meaning average to very good in quality. After all these years and after many thousands of alcoholic beverages, why do I still do it as a living? I do it because I still enjoy it and I continue to be occasionally enamored and amazed by products that rise far above the pack.

As you can imagine the question I get the most is "What's your favorite wine, beer and spirit?" My disappointing response -- from the questioner's stance -- is "Favorites are always changing because of my ambitious tasting schedule." I do have favorite categories that have over the years become pets. I make no bones about the fact that the categories I appreciate the most are Scotch whisky of all varieties, cognac and armagnac, the red wines of Tuscany, London Dry gin, aged tawny ports and all sherries.

Other beverage alcohol critics
The SJ and our reviews are hardly the only beverage alcohol evaluation game in town. We are sometimes asked what we think about the reviews, scoring systems and evaluation formats of publications like the Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Malt Advocate, Wine & Spirits Magazine, Whisky Magazine et al, or of reviewing companies/organizations like the Beverage Testing Institute.

Our answer: We focus on what we do because our contractual and verbal commitments allow us just enough time to honor those agreements and relationships. I don't at all feel comfortable commenting on what anyone else in our field does because my time is spent in the offices of Spirit Journal, Inc., not the facilities of those other places. The sole observation we feel comfortable making is that we differ from most other consumer and trade publications/organizations in that we do not accept advertising. Neither do we charge fees to evaluate products that appear in the SJ or our other columns/outlets nor do we charge fees for the use of our reviews or of our logo. The SJ exists - and has done since 1991 -- just from subscription fees, nothing else. Probably, only Robert Parker's Wine Advocate is the other entity in the U.S. that holds to a similar no advertising/no fee policy. There may be others that I'm not aware of. I apologize to them for the omission.

Are the advertising/editorial and evaluations-for-fees issues worth addressing? They are, if for no other reason than to draw a distinction between philosophies and business approaches. Magazines are profit-oriented enterprises and need revenue to pay staff, printing, circulation companies, promotion, et cetera. The only way that they can compete and survive is to charge companies for advertising space. Same with tasting organizations. That's completely fair. That's capitalism and freedom of the press at work.

Does that automatically mean, though, that reviews in publications or by organizations that accept advertising/evaluation fees might be skewed in favor of the products of advertisers/fee payers? Not necessarily. Besides, that question can only be answered by the publishers/executives of those publications and organizations who are cognizant of their tasting policies/formats.

Our policy at the SJ is simple and direct: We choose not to accept advertising. We choose not to charge fees for evaluations that appear in the SJ and other venues. We choose not to charge for the usage of ratings or reviews that appear in the SJ and other publications or our logo. And, last, though we are frequently pressed to do so, it is not our place to say what others should do or not do.

Thank you for being the most important component of the SJ, the subscriber.

© 2008 F. Paul Pacult
All rights reserved.