Mother Nature, in her divine wisdom, has equipped us with the good sense to look, touch and sniff before accidently offing ourselves with ingested hazardous substances. But when Whisky Attic/Freakin’ Frog owner Adam Carmer turns to you during a spirit tasting and says, “Don’t smell,” you should probably do as he says.
Carmer recalls a time when he was sampling a super-high alcohol spirit. Despite his habit and contrary to instinct, he tasted it without smelling. Just then, his wife cracked a joke and Carmer choked. Gasping for breath after this little comedy of errors, Carmer noticed something had changed. And for the better. “So I’m thinking, as I’m dying, ‘Wait! I’m actually tasting this better!’”
Three years after his choke of genius, the Carmer Spirits Evaluation Calibration Technique (CSECT) is patent-pending. “It’s a new way for people, both amateurs and professionals, to taste and evaluate spirits more effectively, easily and accurately,” says Carmer, who can now add “inventor” to his collection of hats: husband, father of three, bar owner, and adjunct food and beverage professor at UNLV’s hotel school for the last 15 years.
Carmer’s Whisky Attic opened in 2005, an understated sort of modern-day Alexandrian library secreted within and above that UNLV student staple, the Freakin’ Frog. The Attic boasts more than 600 whiskies from around the world, and the Frog, more than 1,000 beers, which Carmer believes makes his the largest beer bar on the West Coast, and the largest whiskey bar in the country.
Somewhere between dealings with distillers, liquor reps, winemakers and brewers it occurred to Carmer that we’ve been evaluating high-alcohol spirits the same way we evaluate their lower-alcohol cousins, beer and wine—nose first. Knowing full well what a deep whiff of alcohol can do to the olfactory system (answer: temporarily fry it), Carmer thought, “There’s obviously going to be a way that’s better for some [products] than others.” Faced with a glass of spirit, Carmer says, “The first thing everyone tries to do is smell it.” He calls it “man bites dog”; it’s just backward. And so, with CSECT, we calibrate or tune our palate tongue-first.
CSECT seeks to eliminate the three enemies of spirits evaluation: the interference of high alcohol, location (you want to move the flavors and smells directly to your retro nasal passage, where the back of your tongue meets the base of your sinuses) and temperature (warming the spirit up separates the molecules).
Here’s how: Resist the urge to dive in nose-first. Sip about a fifth of an ounce, allowing it to land on the front of the tongue. Neither swish nor swallow. Instead, just let any alcohol burn come and go. This should take about five to eight seconds. Note how the salivary glands leap into action trying dilute and neutralize the alcohol. This is normal. Says Carmer, “Our tongue gives us the ability to both dilute the alcohol and retain the memory of the alcohol.” When you’re ready, swallow at least three times, keeping your mouth closed the whole time. (Don’t gulp or you’ll choke.) Breathe in once through your nose and out through your mouth. Now you’re calibrated to that spirit and ready to focus on the flavors and aromas.
It takes all of about 20 seconds, it’s subtle—no snobby swirling, sniffing or spitting—and the heightened awareness lasts for hours or until you’re ready to move on to another product. You must recalibrate each time you switch spirits or brands. “It’s not so much what you notice,” Carmer explains, “it’s that you notice more easily, more clearly.” Like Lasik for your senses, “now you’re able to notice nuances you would never have picked up. If it’s a poorly made product, you’re going to find that out much more quickly now. If it’s an exceptionally made product, you’re going to appreciate it all the more.”
CSECT is the only method Carmer teaches at UNLV and the Attic’s “flight schools,” but also to owners of Fortune 500 companies and renowned bourbon distillers, who are stunned—“shocked awe”—when they realize they’ve been evaluating their own product with the tools of another trade. Palms smack foreheads everywhere he goes. “One guy bowed,” Carmer says.
True, Carmer could have kept this development a secret from the industry and consumers; but instead he chooses to spread the gospel. It is Carmer’s openness to the possibility there might be a better industry standard that makes him an effective instructor, scientist and colleague. And thank goodness for it.
Just think: A closed-minded Thomas Edison would have left us drinking in the dark.