Flights of Fancy: Building the Perfect TastingBy Brad Japhe
At the heart of any great cocktail bar is a collection of standout spirits. Mixologists can employ endless flourishes—artful garnishes, flamboyant showmanship, dazzling presentation—but if the booze isn’t beautiful, the end result can still flounder. Even the most ardent of cocktail enthusiasts ought to take a break to appreciate straight alcohol from time to time.
During such departures, turn to the steward behind the stick for guidance. A solid bartender will never feel threatened by a request for a neat spirit—quite the contrary. They’re usually eager to curate any sort of educational experience. However, there are some who do it more effectively than the rest. There is a method to their madness. Make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full, upright position. Because you are about to takeoff on the perfect flight.
Bar Tonique / Photo Credit: Kevin Tao
It’s become something of a trend for craft-focused bars and restaurants to offer proscribed flights on the menu. Bar Tonique in New Orleans dedicates every Tuesday night to American whiskey tasting specials, served on charred staves. If you live in any major city, there’s something similar happening at a watering hole near you. The places and people taking it further, however, are the ones who introduce a personalized interaction to the practice.
SPECIALIZED WHISKEY FLIGHTS
Spirits author Fred Minnick guides tastings for large groups across the country. Rather than relying on a cookie cutter template, he draws from his dynamic understanding of American whiskey to spice things up as needed. “Building tasting flights is the absolute best way to taste the contrasting styles in bourbon,” he contends. “But I build them differently per the audience. If it’s a new-to-bourbon group, I take them through various ages of whiskey: young, about four years old, six years old and eight years old and older. This let’s them taste how the barrel impacts the flavor as it ages.”
A whiskey flight / Photo Credit: Raphaël Chekroun
For the more advanced drinker, Minnick isolates a single variable across production methods—be it yeast strain, barrel-entry proof, or even grain origin—sussing out how impactful any one factor can be upon the finished liquid. It promotes a robust interaction amongst all participants. “I’ll taste people on a brand from the 1960s, ‘70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s,” he says. “There may be hundreds of variances that cause a 1960s whiskey to taste differently than today’s, and that’s why we taste: to study and define characters.”
VUELO A MÉXICO
In Los Angeles, where tequila is the unofficial spirit of the land, many bartenders are connecting with curious drinkers by highlighting the adaptability of agave. It’s a popular centerpiece for tastings in this part of the world. “A flight of tequila could get pretty intense,” warns Joel Caruso of Bar Mateo. “So my approach is usually to build upon the three primary categories, branching out stylistically from there. Blanco, reposado and añejo from the same company doesn’t always speak to the full range of tequila.”
A tequila flight / Photo Credit: Steven Depolo
So rather than handcuffing himself to one particular producer, Caruso isolates a common tasting note as the thread tying the experience together. If someone confesses a love of peppery, minty flavors, for instance, he could start with Tequila Corralejo’s Blanco, move them to El Tesoro Platinum before concluding with the Roca Patron Añejo. Different styles from different brands, each one echoing the set of desired flavors.
ON THE FLY
While busy bars count time as a precious resource, identifying those flavors can be quick if it involves effective communication. “I do my tasting flights on the spot,” says Germain Canto, beverage director at Bar Louise in Cognac, France. But just because it’s on the fly, doesn’t mean it isn’t calculated. “First I ask my guests a few questions about what the like; what they usually drink; what is their mood; did they have dinner before?”
The coctail menu at Bar Louise / Photo Credit: Bar Louise
From these basic inquiries, Canto is able to draw from his expertise to carve out a customized experience. Your bartender doesn’t have to ask you a bunch of questions, but if they don’t ask you the right questions, they’re not trying very hard to understand what it is you want to experience.
CUSTOMIZED COGNAC FLIGHTS
The unique geography of Canto’s bar binds his flights to France’s most famous grape spirit. There are few bartenders in the world that can build an informed cross-sampling of cognac like he can. “I explain each area [the six appellations: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, Bois Ordinaires], the soil difference, the aromas and tastes [associated] with the different regions.”
A cognac flight / Photo Credit: Paul Dunleavy
All of this occurs prior to anything actually getting poured. This is to promote an open discussion about the spirit, to channel expectations and prime the palate of his patrons. Then comes the most important question of all: budget. Within moments, Canto comes back with customized pours—the optimal arrangement of 1 VS, 1 VSOP, 2 XO and 1 vintage. Even if a specific sampling misses the mark, the drinker walks away with a fuller understanding of what the category can offer. Knowing what you don’t like is often as helpful as knowing what you love.
Regardless of your physical destination, building the perfect flight is a worthwhile journey—an endlessly informative aspect of drinking culture. You end up connecting not only with a style or category of spirit, but also the intuitive soul who was able to show you something new. Hopefully you’ll even learn something about your own tastes along the way. A barroom is always expected to provide great conversation. But sometimes the drink itself can be all the conversation you need.
Ready for a tasting?