I like to draw. Not really so much the figures and scenes sort of drawing. But when I try to explain an idea. When something is abstract and kind of unclear. After about thirty seconds of explanation my instinct is to reach for some sort of pen or marker, a napkin or a whiteboard, and try to begin illustrating what I’m thinking.
Tasting spirits is a somewhat arcane and mysterious practice. Millions of words most certainly have been spent, in equal parts, peeling away the layers of the craft and muddying the waters with technical language and obscure techniques. A lot of what we do here at the Gin is In is opinion based. Giving gin “five star ratings,” or saying these are our “top 10” of a certain type. That’s our point of view and we stand by it.
But there’s an element of objectivity at work here as well. Previously we’ve tried to add visualizations to clarify the presence of certain “key characteristics” of a gin with our Pentagon Rating Tool, now seen on every review. And then we’ve tried to map all gins on a continuous pair of spectra to see how gins are dissimilar or related. These were designed to help demystify certain aspects of the review process by making it easier for folks who’ve tasted fewer gins to benefit from the experience we’ve had of tasting several hundred different gins. The pentagon tool tried to distill a review down to a few objective criteria that you could use to find gins similar to ones you already like and the graph of all gins tried to map those five criteria down to a couple continuous spectra.
Today we’re going to do something different. I’m going to try to illustrate the fuzzy notion of “balance” in a gin.
I believe balance is a bit more objective than most might think at first. It isn’t simply a notion of like/dislike. I can like an unbalanced gin, just as much as someone could dislike a balanced gin. While usually balance is an indicator of quality in a spirit and good craftsmanship, it is a value-neutral assessment. You rarely hear of someone going out to make an “unbalanced gin,” but it does happen. It’s important to note when I speak of balance I do not speak of balance as a euphemism for bad or good. I am instead speaking of how the distiller has balanced various notes on the different parts of the palate. Exceptional gins tend to be well-balanced, and gins which are unbalanced tend to benefit from balancing. Balance is a sign rather than a complete diagnosis.
While usually balance is an indicator of quality in a spirit and good craftsmanship, it is a value-neutral assessment.
I believe there’s a metaphor for this in the world of audio recording. Producers have to learn in what part of the audio frequency range instruments tend to give off sound in. By mastering the art of this arrangement, they can create recordings where every instrument is clearly heard, and that pleasingly fill the entire spectrum of human-perceptible sounds. Here is an illustration of this idea, and as this is a vastly complicated area of study, here’s some more reading on this. There’s another point in this metaphor I’d like to make: if you’ve ever listened to recorded music, you innately recognize when this has been done well.
When I speak of balance as a gin writer, I generally refer to the presence of certain notes/flavors which occur in clear distinct places on different parts of the palate. I look for richness in the low-notes, flavorful mid-notes, and bright top-notes which really pop. I look for clarity and interesting convergences of flavors. I usually like them to be clearly identifiable, or if not identifiable, for the notes to present a clear singular approach on that part of the spirit’s profile. Before I start to make this sound too arcane, let’s start breaking out some diagrams.
Firstly, we’re using a purely fictional gin for this example. Let’s say we have only three botanicals: juniper, coriander, and orris root— all very common gin ingredients. Let’s talk a bit about what this diagram is trying to show.
Orris root tends to be an indistinct earthy note at the very base of a gin. It primarily helps push other ingredients forward and bind their aromas and characteristics together. Its usually considered a base note (to borrow the parlance of perfumery). Coriander can provide some interesting notes to a gin. Some of the top notes it can bring are due to Linalool, a floral compound that imparts a note somewhat akin to fruit loops or sugary cereal when done to excess, but also can contribute to the citrusy bite, or enhance herbaceous and resiny notes in the mid. In the diagram above, this is illustrated. Finally, we have the juniper. The juniper contributes resiny, piney, and other “green” notes to a gin. These notes generally are perceived most acutely in the high and the mids, though due to the number of aroma creating compounds in juniper, its presence on the palate can very.
In short, this is the aroma scenario that this hypothetical diagram is attempting to portray. For example, when we look at the juniper note, the height of the peak represents the “intensity” or “clarity” of a note, how much that specific note is contributing to the notes detected in that part of the taste.
A side note on what we’re actually tracking here
Your tongue only actually perceives general characteristics: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. All of these complex notes that we detect are perceived retronasally. That is, it’s actually your sense of smell [so if we were to more closely borrow language from perfumery, with top, mid and base notes, we’d be headed in the right direction, although perfumery only deals with scents detected orthonasally, or rather, “sniffed with ones nose.”] you’re using.
As an experiment, nose a gin. Then taste a gin. This is the same sense at work here, but the depth and quality of the notes can vary greatly between orthonasal and retronasal sensory feedback. This though is a subject for another entry altogether. Let’s get back to illustrating the concept of balance.
So where does balance come in?
When I begin to talk about balance, I take a look at the three primary types of notes, and I look for a rough equivalence in each of those areas: a balanced gin will have distinct high notes, distinct mid notes, and distinct low and base notes. A spirit which has all three will have a lengthy evolution on the palate, and tend to reward further tastes with additional depth in terms of perceived notes.
Notice, in our hypothetical gin, we have a clear base note, a couple of mid notes, and a mild nose with a touch of juniper and a slight fruity note from the Coriander. The differentiation between base/mid and mid/high is not hard and fast, there can be some overlap (say, the pine notes in our hypothetical gin), but as a generalization for illustrating the concept of balance, this will work.
Now when I look for balance, I look for a little bit of something in all three of these primary sensory regions. A gin lacking in either of these three zones will possibly lack of a good finish, or interesting nose, etc.
So to make use of this chart, if you were to use the three areas colored in above, a “balanced gin” would have equal “colored area” above the curve. Each of those three areas would be about equal, reflecting something equally interesting happening in each part of your taste. For balance, we’d say the blue, green, and yellow areas, were about equal.
So how about this gin? I might say that it’s interesting with differing notes shining at each time, but I might say I was looking for another high note- perhaps some citrus to balance out the flavor a bit.
It’s not entirely science.
This isn’t an absolute objective evaluation of the notes coming from different aroma giving compounds in the gin. That can be done! But it requires advanced equipment beyond what I have access to in my apartment. And secondly, those sort of analyses tend to break it down into compounds: so instead of Juniper, it’s telling you how much pinene and myrcene you’re perceiving. Or that bitter note is coming from Geranyl Acetate.
If you need a textbook to decode the aroma, it’s probably a bit too complicated. I want to try and make it a bit clearer to help visualize what botanicals are contributing to what aromas. That’s where the imprecision works in. Juniper has a wide range or aroma contributing compounds, and once they combine with those of other botanicals, it becomes hard to say with certainty what contributed which note. But we can generalize.
Gin is unique among most spirits in that what we taste we can directly attribute to individual botanicals. You taste lemon in a dark rum? You’re detecting the subtle interaction of forces at work in the spirit, the aging, and other truly arcane chemical interactions. If you detect lemon in the aroma of a gin? There’s a good chance that if you guessed that lemon was in there, you’d be right. You might not always be right (other spices/herbs contain compounds which contribute that same aroma), but more often than not. The mind of the creator is present in every sip.
That’s why in tasting spirits, we try to identify the botanicals rather than the compounds. I won’t be doing these diagrams for every gin, as it would be very time consuming. In the future there will be a couple gins that I’ll analyze and illustrate like this, to help visualize exactly what I’m tasting when I taste a spirit, and help give you a little insight into what goes on in my mind. Arcane no more.