HARTFORD, Conn. — Most days, Dal Perio can be found in his office sipping vodka, tequila or perhaps a cocktail.
His employers don't mind. In fact, they encourage him.
Perio is the "senior sensory scientist" at Heublein Inc., makers of Smirnoff Vodka, Jose Cuervo tequila and more than 100 other spirits. His job is to make sure the products taste as they should and to develop new drinks.
Of course, the job calls for--gulp!--research.
Besides sampling the competitors' products to see how they stack up, Perio tastes the brands of Heublein's parent, London-based International Distillers & Vinters, which include J&B Scotch and Baileys Original Irish Cream.
It adds up to at least two hours a day of tasting for the 35-year-old Perio, who holds a bachelor's degree in fermentation science and sensory evaluation from UC Davis.
"A lot of people romanticize about my job," he said. "But when you turn it into a science, it's not as romantic. It's more of a professional job. The idea of me sitting on a lounger sipping martinis all day long--it's not like that at all."
It's more like a chemistry lab, where Perio analyzes, writes reports and runs statistical models on the computer.
He came to Heublein after working for Johnson & Johnson, where he sniffed body lotions and checked for softness in the hair of people using their shampoos and conditioners.
But alcohol tasting is his real love. He planned on opening his own vineyard before discovering the sensory science field.
Is a drink too sweet? Too vinegary? Too rubbery?
Perio knows. And his boss knows it.
"He can taste anomalies in the parts per million," said John Jones, Heublein's regulatory management group director.
Perio and his tasters once detected a rubbery taste in a batch of vodka made by a Heublein licensee in the Philippines. It turned out that some ingredients had been stored in a warehouse next to old latex.
The tasters sit in sterile white booths, each equipped with a spitting sink. At the front of the booth is a trap door, through which unmarked samples are passed.
The testers sniff a sample, taste it, spit it out, clear their palates with water and receive the next sample. Perio has veto power over the group's decision.
Perio avoids spending his days in a drunken stupor by spitting out every sample he tastes. Some alcohol does get absorbed through the tongue.
"I don't think it's enough to prevent me from driving home at the end of the day," he said. "I'm perfectly fine. It's negligible."
Of course, there is taste-bud fatigue, which comes from tasting the same product repeatedly.
"If I was tasting one thing all the time, I would probably get burned out," he said. "But we have such a wide range of products, from sherry to brandy, to vodka to gin, to mixed drinks, to nonalchoholic drinks, that your burnout rate is a lot lower."
Perio said he has a fully stocked liquor cabinet at home, but rarely drinks socially. If he does drink out, he drinks just to enjoy the taste, never "the cheap stuff."
A night out at a restaurant, Perio admitted, can be tough on the wine steward.
"I'm the guy that always gets handed the wine list," he said. "And I'm not afraid to send [wine] back. Whether the wine has been exposed to too much sunlight, or the cork is bad, I can tell."