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How to Tell Good Alcohol from Bad

Whilst taste preferences are subjective, some alcohol is just plain bad. Find out what constitutes a bad alcohol so that you can be sure to avoid it in the future.

We all have one of those friends who will pick up a glass of gin, swirl the liquid around, breathe in the fumes and then say, “Can’t you just smell the quality?” You pick up your own glass and sniff it knowledgeably, and agree, even though you have no idea what you’re supposed to be smelling, or if the lost-in-a-pine-forest fragrance coming out of your glass is good or bad. Every friend group has an obnoxious “expert” – here’s how to become that expert in your own friend group!

FACT VS PREFERENCE

To begin with, the idea of “good” and “bad” alcohol is a fairly subjective thing. A lot of it is a question of personal taste. If you’re not keen on smoky flavours, things like peated scotch whisky and mezcals aren’t going to be for you. If you don’t like overly-sweet things, there are certain liqueurs that are going to be an absolute turn-off. Knowing your own personal preferences, and understanding what different alcohols are supposed to taste like, is a good base to figure out what kind of drinks are going to be particularly agreeable to you. However, there are certain things that do denote an actually, objectively bad alcohol.

STEP 1: APPEARANCE

First things first. You will sometimes be able to tell if an alcohol has gone by simply looking at it. Liquors that have been exposed to air and light (perhaps through a dodgy cork, or being placed in direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time), have a nasty habit of oxidising. This is why, whilst they may look appealing, you should never buy a bottle that has been sitting in a shop window for a long period of time.

Whisky will grow paler and more transparent, and have a duller flavour. Cream liqueurs can pick up a spoiled-dairy smell. Vermouth can get vinegary, whereas sweet liqueurs can thicken and crystallise. Check your bottle before you pour, consider how long it’s been open for, and remember to store fortified wines and aperitifs in the fridge once opened.

STEP 2: AROMA

Next up, is the smell. Not to get too far into the science of it all, but when alcohol is distilled, it produces a number of different reactions. One of the possible outcomes here is methanol, rather than ethanol. Bad liquor quite often has a methanol component to it, and that’s something to avoid.

How to avoid it? Basically, if you sniff a liquor, and there’s a whiff of anti-freeze, the methanol probably didn’t get entirely removed during the distillation process. After a while, you get pretty used to recognising this particular aroma. Methanol burns like hell going down, and methanol poisoning isn’t a lot of fun. If it has that disinfectant kind of odour, stay away. The same principle stands for wine. Bad wine will smell abrasive and sharp often with sour medicinal aromas similar to nail polish remover, vinegar or paint thinner, so you’ll know to say “no” to such a bottle.

STEP 3: SMOOTHNESS

Finally, if the liquid has slid past the sight and sniff tests undetected, you’ll still be able to tell a good alcohol from a bad one by how smooth it is. No doubt, you’ll have heard your obnoxious friend talking about “smoothness”. So, what is smoothness, exactly? 

Well, alcohol itself procures a burning sensation. The higher the alcohol percentage in whatever you’re drinking, the stronger the burn. A “smooth” feeling means that as you sip it, and it travels down your throat, you feel a warmth rather than a sting. If it gently warms your mouth and intensifies as you swallow, that’s a good sign. If drinking it feels like it’s shredding the lining of your throat with a blowtorch as it goes down, you can probably classify this one as a bad alcohol.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In the end, though, most of what makes a good alcohol is in the taste buds of the beholder. So, if you love liquorice, pick up that glass of pastis, swirl it around, breathe in all of the lovely aniseedy fragrance, and say “Can’t you just smell the quality?” After all, the real quality of any liquor is in the pleasure it brings to the drinker.