Tasting Rakija – Introduction
The three basic components to “tasting rakija”or to judge a rakija or any brandy/cognac or any fruit spirit when tasting are: color, nose and palate. The color of a rakija can add or detract from one’s experience but color is only part of the analysis that can be performed through visual inspection. Clarity, intensity and free of debris are other quality aspects that can be attained through visual inspection, and thus one of the three categories I use for tasting and rating rakijas is labeled, Visual Inspection.
The second basic component used in judging fruit spirit is the nose. Because the evaluation of the smell of a spirit is more complex than the taste of a spirit combined with the overlapping contribution of a sprit’s smell to its taste, the label of Aromatic Experience is more suitable. Finally, there is the palate. Palate is much more than just the taste of the spirit. It is also the ‘feel’ of the spirit when it is in your mouth and it is also its lasting impression, the finish.
Rakija, unlike other spirits, but just like wine, is dependent on seasonal harvest of grapes or other fruits. A distiller’s production methods may remain consistent, but inevitably one can expect variations in the grapes from one harvest to the next. As many grape rakijas are made from using more than one varietal, the varietal mix (ratio of one kind of grape to another) can change from year to year depending upon their availability. Another factor, a winery or distillery may be forced to use grapes from another region to augment their supply. These are some of the elements that provide a challenge to distillers to annually produce consistent quality rakijas. Though there may be differences among vintages, the similarities between vintages are more significant than the slight differences.
Tasting Rakija – Visual Inspection
Assuming basic and good distillation practices, all rakijas exit the condenser without visible faults. At this juncture, the distillate should be transparent and crystalline. There should be no color or debris. Further stages in the production process such as additives, ABV reduction by adding water, aging in a cask, chill filtration or the lack thereof can have an effect on the appearance of the rakija. Chill filtration is used to correct some of these faults to help restore the rakija’s visible transparent and crystalline appearance. Chill filtration is often used on rakijas that have been stored in casks in order to remove any cloudiness.
Aging in a wooden cask can provide a large range of colors. The particular shade and darkness will depend on the type of wood used in the cask as well as cooperage techniques, the age of the cask and its history (previous fills) and how long the rakija remained in the cask. A first fill barrel will give rapid color. A second fill barrel will give color at a reduced rate but should also introduce more tannins. A darker rakija does not necessarily mean an older rakija. Caramel, burnt sugar, can be added as a coloring agent to simulate aging in wood casks. Except in the case rakijas aged for long periods of time, the rakija should not exhibit any red hues, and if it does, it can probably be attributed to excessive amounts of caramel be added to the mix. The presence of caramel can also be discovered in the later stages of the tasting process.
In the Visual Inspection of a rakija three factors should be judged. These factors are Transparency/Clarity, Color and Viscosity. Any cloudiness or debris in the rakija should be noted in the score for transparency. The colour should be crystalline or in the case of rakijas aged in casks, the color should be appealing and somewhat brilliant. If the hues are dull, this signal defaults in the production methods. Viscosity is judged by how slow or fast the rakija travels in the glass when swirled or how well it clings to the side of a glass. After a glass is swirled, rakija will produce “legs” or “tears” above the surface. This is called the Marangoni Effect. Basically, after the glass has been swirled, the rakija on the side of the glass will begin to evaporate. As alcohol evaporates faster than water, gravity pulls the heavier compound, water back into the glass, leaving the
Tasting Rakija – Aromatic Experience
There are many contributing factors to the types and varieties of aromas in a rakija. Aromas will vary widely depending on the type of fruit or varietal of grape used and on production techniques such as the type of still and how the rakija was aged. But the one common trait that all rakijas have in common is the initial jab to the nose.
The initial introduction of a rakija to one’s nose is the volatility (jab) of the rakija. The volatility, ethyl alcohol, can produce a burning sensation to the nostrils. The best rakijas are those that have a minimal burning sensation and minimal pungent presence. A rakija that has predominantly the smell of alcohol and all its sharpness is usually one of poor quality and/or very young. The volatility is essential as a vehicle in transporting aromas from the liquid to one’s nose. The volatility should not hide aromas but assist in bringing them to life.
Immediately following the impact of the volatility, one should be able to enjoy the bouquet the rakija has to offer. There are five (5) steps that can be taken to try to capture all the aromas. These steps are referred to as the five (5) noses. Note that only the fourth nose is performed by swirling the glass. Also, below is just a general guideline. Aromas normally attributed to one nose can also be found in the other noses.
- First Nose – Glass is held approximately two (2) inches or five (5) centimeters from the nose. The most volatile and subtle aromas are discovered here. These most volatile scents are known as the montant. Some subtle aromas such as vanilla and wood aromas from aged rakijas or other sweet smells from poor rakijas with caramel added can be captured.
- Second Nose – The edge of the glass is next to the nose. Floral scents such as dry lime blossom, vine flowers and violets can be observed.
- Third Nose – The nose is placed inside the glass. Fruity aromas such as apples and grape juice can be found here.
- Fourth Nose – The glass is gently swirled and the edge of the glass is placed next to the nose. Here aromas can be combined and other scents such as herbs, nuts and dried fruits can be perceived.
- Fifth Nose – After tasting the rakija, with only a drop or two remaining in the glass, cover the glass with a piece of paper. This will allow the alcohol to escape but also preserve some aromas. After a few hours or preferably the next morning, remove the paper, and inhale deeply from the glass. New aromas that were blanketed by the alcohol or that were difficult to discern can be discovered using this method.
Through all phases of the Aromatic Experience, one should be judging the intensity of the aromas. Are they rough or harsh? Or they ordinary, or undistinguished? Are they delicate, fragile or gentle? Or are they bold, distinguished and/or exquisite?
Tasting Rakija – Palate Evaluation
In tasting a rakija, it is important to note that flavors will be introduced in different stages. The tongue is separated into four separate taste zones: sweet, bitter, salty & sour. The tip of the tongue is the sweet zone, the rear is bitter, forward edges salty and the rear edges are sour. Thus, upon first tasting a rakija one will most likely first discern the sweet qualities and upon swallowing, the finish will reveal the bitter elements.
The Palate evaluation is performed in three stages. There is the 1st Sip, the 2nd Sip and the finish. With the 1st Sip, the taster should only take small sips of 1 to 2 milliliters at a time. Each sip should be held in the front of the mouth so the taster can appreciate the “Taste” and the “Touch”. Taste is the balance between softness, acidity and bitterness. Here you judge whether the rakija is dry, medium or sweet. Touch is the degree of or the feeling of roundness, body, strength, and volume. In short, touch is the texture of the rakija and one can chew the rakija to explore its qualities. Does the alcohol have a good melting quality? Is it soft, balanced or is sharp, creating caustic shock? Typically, the fuller the body, the more time the rakija has had to age in a cask. Caution, caramel additives can also increase the body of a rakija and this can be detected by the extra sweetness the caramel will give to the flavor. Alcohol has some sweetness to some degree but if a rakija should appear to be sweeter than normal, this should be an alarm as to its quality. But aging in wood does not only provide tones of sweet vanilla. Aging in bagrem (acacia) barrels can add spice to the flavor. Bagrem is a common wood added to the glass balloon or jar by domestic rakija makers to make homemade žolta.
The 2nd Sip, slightly greater than the first sip will introduce you to the variety of flavors the rakija has to offer. This is where you discover the vegetal, cereals, fruits, flowers, herbs, spices and other flavors. You will also be able to judge their intensity, balance, harmony and complexities. It is here that the flavors combine with the aroma to present to you the real nature and identity of the rakija.
The finish is actually the last stage of the 2nd Sip, the actual exit of the rakija, but it is important enough to make it a separate category. Does the rakija excessively burn your throat or does it just simply disappear or does it provide a gentle warming and soothing of the esophagus? Is the final taste excessively bitter? Does it remind you of meadow grass or of walnut shells? The finish is the last impression you have of the rakija. So, how was its overall drinking quality? Some may say that it’s enough to smell and taste the rakija and that you do not need to swallow and will discharge the contents into some other vessel. But these people are cheating themselves. It would be like buying a car only to leave it parked in the driveway. Swallowing rakija is part of the whole experience, from first sight, to first nose, to its lasting impression.
Tasting Rakija – Preparation
The room. The environmental setting, conditions and other factors can have a significant influence upon the tasting of a rakija. Example: You wouldn’t want anybody boiling cabbage or frying fish when you are being introduced to a new rakija. The room where the tasting is to take place should be ventilated and well lit with as much natural light as possible.
Time. Some experts claim that mid-morning or early evening are the times of the day to perform tastings. But of much importance, is to have enough time to enjoy the spirit and have a complete and successful tasting. Keep in mind, that generally, there should no more than 3 to 4 samples at one tasting.
The glass. The stereotypical vision of an ideal glass for rakijas, brandies and cognacs is the classical balloon glass that features a large bowl and a short stem. As charming or prevalent as this glass may be, it is not necessarily the ideal instrument. The wide surface of the balloon glass increases the spirit’s contact with air leading to increased/excessive alcohol volatility. The increase in volatility can limit the perception of some aromas contained in the spirit. More suitable to sensorial evaluation are the tulip or onion shaped glasses. The glasses should be relatively small, around 4 inches (10 centimeters). The key element is the shape of the glass is that the body of the glass tapers to the mouth, leaving the mouth of glass narrower than the body. The tulip and onion shaped glasses are better able to retain aromas and allow aromas to delicately rise to the nose in a graduated steps.
Pouring. The glass should not be filled more than a quarter full, allowing room for the aroma to develop and to ascend progressively. Warming the glass slightly with the palm of your hands will further help release aromas. Do not heat the glass with a candle or another source as this can destroy some of the delicate aromas the rakija has to offer. As much as possible, arrange for blind tastings and identify the spirit after the tasting is completed.
Temperature. There is a direct link between the alcohol volatility of a spirit and its temperature. The higher the temperature, the more volatile the spirit. Alcohol volatility is the main vehicle that transports aroma to the taster. High temperatures can lead to excessive burning on the nose and/or a disrupt the analysis. Too low of a temperature can also understate or bury essential aromas. As a guideline, serve spirits between 53º and 65º Fahrenheit (12º to 18º Celsius). Spirits that have been aged in wood are better served in the upper part of that range and younger spirits are better served in the lower part of the range. Serving young spirits between 53º and 57º Fahrenheit will help tame the sharpness that is common to young spirits.
Self-Preparation. Prior to each tasting, brushing teeth and scraping the tongue while rinsing with bottled spring water will help provide for a more objective sensorial analysis. You can use ordinary tap water but many municipalities treat the water with chlorine and other chemicals that could interfere with a fair assessment. In selecting bottled water, try to choose one without excessive mineral content as this too can affect the tasting.
Note taking. Notes should be recorded during and immediately after the tasting. This allows for more complete analysis and objectivity and also provides a historical record. This record can be very useful in comparisons with subsequent tastings of the same spirit. Some spirits’ complexities are hard to ascertain with a first tasting. Multiple tastings of the same spirit betters your opportunity to gain full appreciation of the spirit and can also increase objectivity. A standard form can also be used to ensure complete sensorial analysis of all the steps and for ease of use.