Shots in the Dark: Binny’s Spirits Experts Get a Taste of Humble Pie
I’m the lucky one here. All I have to do is round up the spirits, funnel them into generic bottles, photograph the bottles, head down to the South Loop Binny’s, get Brett Pontoni and Pat Brophy to focus long enough to taste these four spirits. I’ll need to take careful notes, then edit the whole thing down to a compelling narrative that stays true to the conversation.
But they have to get through a blind tasting. I do not envy them.
Pat runs through all four first. He talks as he tastes. “Not much on the nose. Spirited. A little thin up front but it finishes long. Sweet and peppery. You brought me bourbon, and I’m struggling to figure out which. Could be Blanton’s. It’s too sweet though. Not enough vanilla or dry enough to be Elijah Craig. Young and spirity on the nose, which leads me to believe that it could have been aged in smaller barrels and could be from a micro distillery. Something like a Hudson. This is wild.”
I ask him for a thumbs up or thumbs down. He takes his time, sums up his descriptors.
“Corn puddin’ nose, balanced by some brown sugar and maple. Medium body, nice finish, long. Thumbs up, whatever this is.”
Brett’s next, and Pat sits in while he tastes. He sniffs all four samples, guessing this sample as bourbon or Canadian. He works his way back around.
“Fairly lean. Decent enough I suppose. Tastes young. Not much finish. Not real developed, not a ton of wood on it. That could also be a sign of a Canadian that had too much G.N.S. and crap added to it.”
“G.N.S.?” I ask.
“Grain Neutral Spirits,” Brett explains. “With Canadian whiskey, a lot of the final blend can be G.N.S.”
I try not to raise my eyebrows or offer any clues. Next time I’ll do this double blind. They’re offering all the descriptors I would for this whiskey. I’m fighting the urge not to tell them to listen to themselves and what they’re describing.
Pat tastes the next sample. “This is weird. Almost vegetal, grassy, like alfalfa hay. Mint or eucalyptus, which is a signature of Heaven Hill distillates, so once again we’re back around to Evan Williams or Elijah Craig. So minty… A little spicy and a tickle of anise”
I know I shouldn’t, but I ask Pat to take a stab at the alochol content. He doesn’t hesitate. “Definitely not cask strength. Around 46%.”
I ask him thumbs up or thumbs down. He takes his time again. “Faintly grassy. Tastes Bitter, a little metallic. If Sam Adams was a whiskey, that’s what Sam Adams would taste like. Thumbs sideways.”
Now Brett’s up. He takes a quick sniff. Off the cuff he says, “Bourbon.”
After sniffing the others, he comes back to give it more thought.
“This tastes more like a rye. This either doesn’t have much age or is overaged. I’m not a big fan. It’s really tarry and burnt on the edge. Not dark enough that it could be something that was in wood too long. I’d speculate rye. Although I suppose it could be a really young high rye bourbon.”
I know this one is going to stump them. I agree with their observations. They’re smelling and tasting the same qualities that I am, and it’s catching me off guard because this doesn’t match my expectations for this whiskey. On to C.
Pat’s up again. “Lotta corn on this one. This smells newer than it looks. Once again it seems microdistilled. Also thin, bitter on the finish. Slightly minty, thin. Short finish with some lingering bitterness. Are these four different barrels of the same thing?” He’s asking me for a clue.
I don’t even pause. “You have four brown spirits.”
“I can see that.”
“That’s all you get.” I’m being mean. I have tasted blind. It is unbelievably frustrating. But I can’t offer clues. Pat sighs.
“It tastes young and spirity, and that’s all that needs to be said about that.I’m not the biggest fan of that one.”
I ask, “Thumbs down?”
“Funky, just strange. I can’t put my finger on it. These all could be Canadian whiskys because they’re thin enough and spirited enough to be blended. The first sample, I don’t think is rye heavy enough to be Canadian, the rest of them feel like Canadian. Far too smooth, though.”
I try not to smile. “Thumbs up? Thumbs down?
Brett’s first thought? “Bourbon. This smells young.”
Once he makes it back around, he starts by comparing it to B. “This is better. A little bit softer, not as attacking. The nose is good baked graham cracker crust, burnt chocolate, something like that. Bubblegummy.” He continues, but I can see that he’s searching for the words to describe what he’s tasting. “I mean they’re likely fairly young, although this one’s awfully tarry to be young. Young whiskeys, they don’t finish much…”
Pat interrupts. “Could the tarry one be a heavier char? Could that heavier char do that to a young whiskey? No, right?”
“Nah.” Brett stops. “I mean it could I suppose. It wouldn’t necessarily be a heavy char. It could just be a flaw that it picked up too much astringency.”
They’re overthinking this one, and it’s killing me. Brett was so close….
“Ooh! This smells like tea.” Pat takes a minute. “This … just … smells like tea. Did you give me some tea and spike it with vodka?”
“I did not.”
“Well it smells like it.”
“That’s a clue. I did not.”
“It’s not near as exciting as it should be.” He smells and tastes over and over.
“What do you think? You didn’t even say much except for ‘It smells like tea.’”
“It tastes like tea…”
I try to prompt Pat. “Tastes like tea…”
“Thin … Oh man I can’t get over … Tea. That smells like tea. I drink a lot of tea and this smells like tea. Dude. Man. Why are you giving me … you totally spiked Brett’s iced tea with vodka. That’s what happened here.” He holds his hands around his glass to warm it up. “Very thin, very quick. A little pepper.”
“Thumbs up?” I ask. “Thumbs down?”
“If it’s coming out of the fountain at a gas station, Thumbs up. If it’s being served to me as a whiskey, tumbs down.”
“Yes, you’ve given me tea. It’s coming around a bit, but I still can’t get over the tea. Out of the fountain at Speedway, 59 cent 64 oz refills, I’m all over it.”
Brett’s first impression is, “That actually smells more like Scotch or Irish.”
I try not to smile. He takes his time. “Fairly decent. I think it’s still young. Not bad, kinda sweet. That hard candy Lowlandy note, pear, apples, soft fruit. Green skin, not underripe. I like this one. It has to be at least somewhat barley based.”
“I thought it smelled distinctly of tea. Agree or disagree with that? I couldn’t get past it.”
Brett considers it. “See, I don’t want to say “distinctively” because I don’t think tea is a super forward, ‘distinctive’ taste. I thought about the fruit, like pear, apple, when I think…”
Pat: “…thin skinned fruit…”
Brett: “…I think about fruit skin, which can be the same thing. Tea would be fair, it’s just that fruit hit me first … then I started thinking about fruit skin, which can smell lik