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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
The most valuable part of these festivals is probably the seminars, though, as you can hear famous and decorated personalities from all over the world talk about the world of alcohol and mixology for a good hour. Every seminar focuses on something very different, and they aren't just for people in the industry. I feel like I chose the best of seminars, as I had the pleasure of world-renknowned cocktail and spirit personality Philip Duff discuss "neutral" spirits, and Darcy O'Neil from www.artofdrink.com discuss the science of taste and how flavours interact with each other.
Today I'll focus on the former. Duff was actually there as a representative of a new vanilla vodka by Cariel that sponsored the seminar, and luckily was charismatic and smart enough to take things in an interesting direction and keep us all entertained. I say that because vodka is boring and flavourless (literally), and flavoured vodkas are, for the most part, full of artificial additives, bad flavours, and are cheaply produced spirits. So, Duff not only found a really exciting direction to take us all, he also spent most of the seminar on one particular subject - neutral spirits. Vodka is just a distilled neutral spirit that has been distilled more times over to remove all flavours and colours. Water is added to dilute to the appropriate proof, and voila, there's your vodka. But what does "neutral spirit" mean, exactly?
If a grain is germinated, fermented, then distilled, the product is a "neutral spirit," meaning that nothing has been done other than the aforementioned processes. If the neutral spirit is then aged, it can be considered a whiskey, if the neutral spirit is steeped in juniper and other herbs, it can be considered a gin, and so on. Similarly, grapes can be fermented (wine) and distilled to give brandy, malt wine can be distilled to give genever, and again - so on. So often you will hear a spirit or liqueur use the term "neutral spirit" when describing the process by which the product is made, and none of us really give a thought as to what the neutral spirit is because it's, well, neutral. But is it? The general understanding is that this spirit is flavourless and for all intensive purposes identical to all others regardless of the material from which it was distilled. As we came to discover from Duff's presentation, this is not the case.
It was an extremely valuable experience for my palate, and extremely informative for someone interested in spirits. I never really thought about exactly what the neutral spirit might be in a product, but now I can't stop wondering any time I taste something. I've also started thinking a lot more about the mash of whiskeys. Taking a sip of Bulleit, Buffalo Trace, or Wild Turkey bourbon I can't help but notice more spice notes from the higher rye contents in comparison to ones like Maker's Mark and Knob Creek. Furthermore, I can't help but wonder what cheap brands of any kind of spirit use as their base because so many don't list anything at all (most major, cheap brands are actually made at multiple distilleries in multiple locations around the world, then all blended together in an attempt to achieve a solitary flavour).
I'll be back tomorrow to chat a little more about Duff's presentation, but also to briefly discuss vodka. Click here to see "Neutral Spirits Part 2."
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