In Food + Drink

Our Judges’ Guide To The First Ever Tasting Australia Spirit Awards

It’s no secret that the Australian spirits category has boomed in the last few years. There are now well over a hundred craft distilleries around the country with plenty more waiting in the wings, and it seems that a new product hits the market every week. It’s not just quality, either – there are some seriously good drops being produced.

With so many products on offer, it can be hard to know where to start, but Tasting Australia’s first ever Spirit Awards is setting out to make that a little bit easier.

Judge for yourself

Hains & Co Photo: Supplied

The judging panel will include the legendary Bill Lark, one of the first craft distillers in the country. Alongside him will be a range of experts across different spirits categories, including distributor and brand ambassador Mark Reginato and Marcus Motteram, who runs Adelaide’s nautically-themed small bar Hains & Co.

The awards will be announced at a ticketed event in Adelaide, which will also include tastings of the entrants. As with wine, spirits tastings involve less than a standard pour – that means significantly less then a 30mL shot, so it’s important to know what you’re doing to get the most out of it.

Everything In Its Right Place

The best place to start is with the light spirits, working your way through the more complex flavours and brown spirits until you finish with whiskey. Last of all are the liqueurs – though they have less alcohol, most of them have added sugar that will ruin your palate.

The Perfect Vessel

Denver & Liely glassware Photo: Denver & Liely

There’s a range of specialty glasses, particularly for different styles of whiskey. Motteram loves the hand blown glasses from Denver & Liely (and keeps a few behind the bar), but adds that a regular wine glass is perfect for tasting. It allows you to get a good look at the spirit, concentrates the aromas nicely and is easy to procure.

Approach with caution

Smelling a spirit before tasting it will allow you to pick up some of the more delicate flavour profiles, but Reginato recommends holding the glass slightly away from your nose.

“Don’t just whack it straight in your face, because all you’re gonna do is burn your olfactory. If you burn that then you’re really not going to smell or taste much because it’s all connected.”

You’ll get different scents from the top and bottom of the glass and everyone has their own methods – Motteram recommends smelling from each nostril separately, while Reginato laughs at the suggestion. “I’m Italian; my nose will probably get it from ten metres away.”

Stop, Sip Twice

“If you’re going to taste straight spirits, just put a little bit in your mouth because it’s going to burn,” is Motteram’s advice. Given the alcohol content, there’s nothing you can do to prevent this so just let it linger on your tongue for a little bit before swallowing.

That first sip acclimatises the mouth – Reginato calls it “the wake up call,” and then the second sip allows you to discern some of the more subtle flavour components.

Feel The Burn

Archie Rose’s whisky selection Photo: Facebook

Wine can be spat out after tasting, but part of judging a spirit is seeing how smoothly it goes down. There’ll always be some heat (especially for overproof or cask strength spirits) but a good quality spirit shouldn’t be harsh – as Reginato puts it, “You’re gonna have a bit of burn, but it should be that appreciative burn.”

Staying Fresh

The judges will taste as many as 50 spirits, which can ruin the palate if not done with proper care. “It’s tough,” Motteram says with a cheeky grin, “but palate fatigue is one of those things you have to deal with.”

Both judges recommend staying well-hydrated, and taking regular breaks for water and snacks in between tastings. Motteram adds that warm water is particularly good, “so you’re not chilling your palate down. If you do that you’re going to shrink your tastebuds and the spirits are not going to taste the same way they did before.”

Mix To Taste

After the first sip, adding a few drops of water will help to release the flavours from most spirits, and is standard tasting practice. But if you’re not used to drinking spirits on their own, the next step is to see how it mixes in your favourite drink.

The Tasting Australia Spirits Awards on April 19 will be a chance to try eight of the entrants neat, and there’ll also be a bar making mixed drinks and cocktails. Later on, distillery takeovers at more than a dozen small bars around Adelaide will pair cocktail experts with distillers from around Australia, continuing the event well into the night. The full Tasting Australia program has a range of other spirits events, including masterclasses and matched dinners.

Published 12 March, 2018