Defect and Flavor Training at Wigle Whiskey

By: Denise M. Gardner

Sensory defect and aroma/flavor training is one of the most valuable skills that anyone working in the alcohol beverage industry could learn.  The awareness and ability to identify nuance flavors allows winemakers to produce detailed tasting notes, enhance marketing potential of their product, connect with consumer sensory perceptions, and better evaluate wines for quality.  These facts are also true for distilled spirits and grain-based beverages.

As distillation (and brewing) are becoming popular additions to a winery’s business portfolio, it’s important to stress that these products also come with their own set of quality standards associated with their production.  While fermentation is similar across all products (wine, beer, spirits), processing each should require the addition of an individual that specializes in production of that beverage.  This allows for fewer production issues and more awareness of quality.

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Still at Wigle Whiskey (Pittsburgh, PA)

Wigle Whiskey, a distillery in Pittsburgh, PA invited me to their distillery to help train their staff members in nuance aromas/flavors and spirit defects.  Luckily, many of the defects associated with spirits are also associated with wines (and beers).  If you attended my talk at the 2014 EWE Conference, you may have heard me discuss the possibility of wine defects that can carry through the distillation process and into the final [spirit-based] product.  Therefore, the quality of the base fermented product (wine, fruit wine, or beer) that goes into the still ultimately effects the final quality of the spirit.

Blind rye whiskey tasting of commercial products and tasting sheets for evaluation

Blind rye whiskey tasting of commercial products and tasting sheets for evaluation

What was accomplished during this training?

  • Introduce the basic components associated with spirit sensory evaluation (appearance, aroma, taste)
  • Emphasize common rules associated with sensory evaluation of spirits (e.g. expectorate, inhale delicately, do not attempt to taste more than 6 products in 1 sitting, etc.)
  • Highlight those processing steps or additions that influence spirit aroma and flavor
  • Introduce a series of defects associated with fermented beverages and discuss their potential sources through distillation
  • Present defect, fermentation, and whiskey aging aromas to participants
  • Evaluate commercial products against an in-house product in a blind tasting
Sensory training at Wigle Whiskey

Sensory training at Wigle Whiskey

This is an exercise that all wineries can implement into their tasting rooms and cellars.  At this training session, we used pre-made aroma kits (by Le Nez du Vin and Wine Awakenings) to introduce employees to over 100 aromas associated with distilled spirits (and wines).  Wineries can also used their Penn State Extension Enology Digital Defects Kits (flash drive) that were mailed to all Pennsylvania licensed wineries in May 2013.  If you would like to receive a copy of this defects kit, please email me at dxg241@psu.edu.  This kit was designed so that regular household products could be used to initiate the aroma identification of common wine defects.

By the end of the meeting, many commented on how regular trainings or tastings implemented at weekly staff meetings would help improve everyone’s sensory skills.  Many winemakers, including Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, discuss how important it is for wineries to have regular tastings of various commercial products with staff to improve awareness of nuance aromas and flavors, understand quality wines, and refine employees’ palates (aka avoiding house or cellar palate).

Learning about how aromas and flavors are influenced during production

Learning about how aromas and flavors are influenced during production

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