Being a sommelier, for most people, means drinking all the day. Alas, it’s far from being even remotely true. Sure there are tastings but (A) we spit and (B) who said all wine is great to taste, especially at 9am when the only thing tannins and acid serve to is scraping up chunks of precious enamel from our pearly whites.
So recently when I was invited to come and judge a spirit competition, I was expecting much worse. The only imaginable thing worse than having to taste wines on an empty stomach could be to taste alcoholic beverages at an average strength of 40% alcohol by volume on an empty stomach! (Empty stomach because when we are hungry, our senses are peaked and we can see, smell, and taste better and more astutely. Great for tasting notes but horrible on the poor tummy.)
I walked into the first day of judging at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (Brussels World Championship) for spirits and was soon seated with a flight of eight (or maybe more) slightly ambré spirits. The first few whiffs and sips were absolute fire, singeing my system all the way down to my stomach. I was spitting harsh and forcefully, putting 40% strong stuff on an unlined stomach was the highway to hangover central and the last thing I could as a venerable and so-far respected judge was to be slurring through my explanations of a particular medal-worthy eau-de-vie. Somewhere along I got the hang of it and learnt to form a pattern, a rhythmic inhalation followed by a short spurt of a sip that was quickly gargled and ejected, and then a marking of the final notes and I was good to mark the beverage adequately.
This competition is an important one in the world and it was quite a gathering – the most revered noses and palates of the spirits world – and it made me realise just how little spirits are appreciated. A wine gets utmost scrutiny by the most novice of imbibers at all price levels. A spirit on the other hand is more power play of brand flashing, trying to impress by one-upping your peers with something that is more precious. Sure wine has its share of snobs but it is less of a nuisance.
Without trying to impress here are a few spirits from the world that are pretty rare to find and yet pretty delicious to try. Consider it home work for a distant holiday.
1.Brandy de Jerez:
The Southern Spanish region of Jerez doesn’t just make that salty fortified wine called Sherry. It also makes an absolutely delightful brandy, and uses the wine casks to age it. The result is a smooth sip with vinous savoury notes. If a sweet wine barrel is used, the liqueur has this sweet tingle that warmly lingers through each sip. Absolutely delightful and, given how it isn’t quite the rage it deserves to be, a steal for the price.
Literally white spirit. I mention this purely because it is the rage in China. Prices are astronomical – some precious porcelain bottles are only available to members of their exclusive club – and if you are ever doing business in that part of the world, a pricey bottle of this will ensure you an accord. But beware if they ask you to drink it with them. Some brands claim to have that ‘rich soya sauce flavour’ but I put it down to hallucinations induced through knocking back too much of this (flavourless vile) stuff.
Brazil is where the soul of, no pun intended, a spirited party lies. Cachaça (rum) is their version of what the French call ‘rhum agricole’ and you can taste the lovely sugarcane juiciness in it. There are many brands and all are made the same way but nature ensures that no two areas make Cachaça that tastes the same. With the FIFA cup set for next year in the country, it may be a good idea to stock up for a themed party. With some ice, crystal cane sugar, and lemon juice, you can stir up quite the classic refresher.
Cognac’s lesser-known cousin but equally qualitative and worthy of repute. They label Armagnac differently (it has a different set of rules and legislations than Cognac). It is once-distilled and this is said to preserve more of the wine’s aromas. Then there are differences in the way it is aged. Cognac or Armagnac, the result is a lovely heart-warming drink in each case but given how one is lesser known in the world (you know which), you can buy some seriously old stuff for a comparatively lower price.
Chile and Peru make this lovely grape distillate and the version called, ‘Pisco Mosto Verde Aromatico’ is delightfully fragrant and a joy poured on ice. Sure it mixes with lemonade (or the famous Pisco sour cocktail) but even b itself it displays balance and lightness of texture. Hard to find but sure to earn you some serious connoisseur points.
Magandeep Singh is India's first sommelier, food, wine and travel writer and TV show host. His passions include studying languages and choking the saxophone. In his free time he works.