Some may think that Stephanie Moreno has the dream job: tasting spirits made all over the world and deciding which to stock at Astor Wines & Spirits, one of New York's biggest and best liquor stores. Stephanie might agree. This native Texan and former fishmonger has turned using her tastebuds into a career through focused education and tasting, tasting, tasting.
We talked to Stephanie about how she creates tasting notes, the best booze bargains, and her favorite food and cocktail pairing.
How did you get into this line of work?
Well, this certainly wasn't something I thought I would be doing when I was a little girl in Texas, but looking back at my adult life it makes sense. Long story short, in about a 12 year span, I went from vegetarian to fishmonger to wine salesperson to spirit buyer. I guess for me it was about learning where my food and drinks came from and discovering just how careful work in the farm, vineyard, distillery, etc. translates, often times, to a quality tasting experience. At the end of the day, I think this line of business finds you, not the other way around.
Did you have to get special training or take classes to gain a deeper knowledge of spirits?
I did most of my training hands-on initially; just sticking my nose in a glass and tasting things neat and writing my thoughts down. I certainly have taken my fair share of spirit classes at our sister facility, Astor Center, but when I had the opportunity to participate in the most fantastic program out there on the subject of spirits and cocktails, my world really never was the same again. The Beverage Alcohol Resource (B.A.R.) taught me so much. Paul, Dave, Steve, Andy, Doug, and Dale are rock stars and I am in love with each and every one of them. They have so much passion and knowledge about spirits and cocktails and the history of these beverages that you can't help but become just as excited and passionate yourself. The. Best. Time. Learning. Ever.
I've also got to say that visiting distilleries and meeting the makers really helps for everything to sink in. I've been so fortunate to visit Scotland, Oaxaca, and our local distilleries here in New York State. I encourage all to do the same. My goal this year is to visit more craft distilleries all over the United States on top of doing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which I can't believe I still haven't done yet.
How do you go about translating what you taste into descriptions that are helpful to your customers?
I actually get images of items in my head like fuzzy peach skin, bacon fat, mesquite burning on a cool summer night, maple syrup slowly dripping down a stack of pancakes. I write those down in a short hand way initially for myself and then try to rewrite for our shelf talkers how all of those things make sense together.
Any tips for Serious Eaters (and Drinkers) on how to taste a spirit properly?
As the B.A.R. guys taught me, always smell the spirit with your mouth open. This way the alcohol has somewhere to go instead of straight to your nostrils. Also, always taste twice. To paraphrase Paul Pacult, I don't know where your mouth has been. Rinse for the first time and then taste the second. I also always spit when evaluating. Even then, the alcohol goes to your bloodstream through your gums, so always drink plenty of water. That is my secret to success.
How do you keep on top of what's new in the spirits world?
Naturally, I have sales reps come see me and show me what's new, but I try to stay in touch with the makers when possible to get a sense of what they are working on. Also, I use websites such as Ministry of Rum, Tequila.net and What Does John Know almost daily. Magazines such as Imbibe and Whisky Magazine are essential reading material. NYC is one of the best cities on planet earth for cocktails so I go out a few times a week. Visiting our local watering holes is tough work, but someone's got to do it. I am a big nerd so whenever I visit a bar, I sit at the bar and scan the bottles on the back wall. When I see something I don't know, I ask for a wee taste. Knowing what a base spirit tastes like is a very important step in cocktail making. Bacardi Gold and Appleton Reserve are both rum, but they are going to make your drink taste completely different.
What's the last thing that you tasted that blew you away (in a good way!)?
There are some new mezcals coming to NYC soon that are freakishly good. Mezcales de Leyenda. They are using agaves that we haven't seen here in before: Angustifolia, Cupreata and Duranguensis. These are spirits that make me proud to be a Mexican American. I can't wait to see them on our shelves (and in my house).
Any suggestions on where to start when building a home bar?
I would say to think about what drinks you like and build out from there. Gin is my favorite spirit for cocktails so I always have to have this on hand. Building on that premise, I need to also make sure to stock vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur, Cointreau, etc...If you find yourself drinking lots of whiskey cocktails, then build on that; make sure to have sweet vermouth, bitters, and absinthe.
What do you think are the best values in spirits these days?
Beefeater Gin (classic benchmark for London Dry), Jim Beam White Label, Rittenhouse Rye. (I think every time this is used to make my old fashioned, an angel gets his wings). Compass Box Asyla is one of the first Scotch whiskies I tried that really turned my head around. This has become my warm weather Scotch, and proof that blends are far from inferior to single malts. And finally, vermouth. There is no reason you shouldn't have several different types. Buy small bottles if you don't make cocktails often and keep in your fridge, but I often drink them on the rocks with a twist in the warmer months and encourage all to do the same.
What's your favorite spirit and food pairing?
This is such a tough question! A Remember the Maine cocktail with Steak Tartare from The Clover Club. For me, this pairing is so primal. The rye and vermouth with the splash of absinthe are perfect, and the duck fat fried chips are simply sinful.
What's your go-to cocktail?
It's gotta be a margarita. I do, however, change things up a bit. Sometimes I add a mezcal float; sometimes it is made with mezcal instead of tequila, sometimes I make it with orange juice. It's in my blood or something.
What are some of your favorite bars in NYC and elsewhere? I still have so many spots to try, but these places are where you'll often find me, if I'm not at Astor.
Mayahuel. This place serves up tequila and mezcal cocktails that allow me to open my mind both figuratively and literally. Agave spirits just warm my soul and Rob, Erin, Adam, Mena and Phil know what the f*&k they are doing.
I also am quite fond of Ward III in TriBeCa. (Editor's note: hey, so are we!) I love that I can ask Mike to make me something by giving him only the base spirit and he comes back with questions like stirred or shaken? Spicy or sweet? Winter or spring?
Last but not least, Idle Hands Bar. Bourbon, beer, rock and roll. What else could a girl ask for?
About the author: Laren Spirer is yet another lawyer (and freelance writer) obsessed with food and drink. When she's not eating, drinking, cooking, or thinking about what to eat, drink, or cook, she can often be found cycling, running, or swimming, likely in preparation for a triathlon. She also blogs at Sweet Blog o' Mine and tweets at @sweetblogomine.