How to taste Spirits
Nose vs. Taste vs. Flavors
Tasting is extremely subjective. There is no right or wrong when it comes to personal preferences. Nobody can teach you personal style. You can only be tought how to examine or evaluate, how to make your own decisions. We can, however, teach you how to tell the difference between spirits, and how to identify top-quality distillation versus lesser versions of distillate. If we think of tasting spirits using similar techniques that we employ in wine tasting, we are half way there. We realize that many of you are already excellent tasters, so it should be easy for you to step up to the next level. No matter what your previous experience or existing ability, you will all step up to a new level, if you employ some of the techniques, verbiage, and tasting tricks that we are about to offer. The first step to becoming a qualified taster is to begin to trust your own ability to evaluate.
Understand first that the very word taste is perhaps a misnomer. What we are about to embark upon is really not a tasting at all, but rather a sensory evaluation of the spirit. We must first look, then we will smell, and finally we will “taste,” by putting the spirit in our mouths. The first two steps are every bit as important as the latter, if not more so.
The idea of taste is perhaps a bit misconstrued, based upon the age-old idea that we taste with our taste buds. It is perhaps just a matter of semantics, but nonetheless, think of the taste buds on your tongue as the place where we will evaluate TEXTURE, not flavors. Flavors are actually aromatic compounds which we evaluate with our noses, or indeed our palates.
Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, Astringent
Hot, Cold, Spicy, Bland, Light, Delicate, Rich, Full-bodied
Velvety, Powerful, Complexity, Length
Flavor happens in the nose. Aromatic compounds pass across the palate, which sends signals to the brain for evaluation, which in turn sends signals to the tongue for confirmation that the texture agrees with the flavor (aromatics.)
Flavors could be:
Fruits, Nuts, Spices, Herbs
Evidence of fermentation, distillation, filtration
Evidence of water, or anything added after distillation
We must first look at the spirit, as we can easily see that there is a difference even in the appearance of two spirits within the same category. We evaluate the tears. Call them legs, call them columns, but don’t be fooled into believing that they are indicators of superior quality. Tears indicate alcohol and sugar, which could be an indication of alcoholic strength, richness or body, or even sweetness. We will also examine the clarity and the brightness. Describe the color, clarity, brightness, and examine how the spirit coats the glass and how the tears fall down the side of the glass.
Now, gently smell the spirit, first, from about 7-10 cm above the glass, then working closer, until finally your are in the glass. Describe the aromatics. How does the alcohol smell? Is it behind, lurking underneath and pushing the aromatics forward, or does it jump up and burn your nose? Good quality, well-distilled base spirit will always push all other aromatics forward. Perhaps the most important thing to learn is how to evaluate the quality of the base.
Tasting the spirit, evaluating the base
Before putting the spirit in your mouth, allow us to make this a little easier on you. First let’s make this otherwise fairly strong spirit a bit easier to evaluate. Understand that by tasting it slightly diluted with water, it may be easier, but it may or may not retain the actual texture. Do the aromatics really need help stepping out? While I recommend that you serve it chilled, if you attempt to evaluate at ice cold temperatures, the alcohol is toned down, but the viscosity, or richness, is heightened, perhaps making a less than great spirit seem better. Instead, try these tricks to help you master tasting:
First, since alcohol is derived from sugar, isn’t it fascinating that alcohol is often perceived in the mouth as a type of sweetness. Since we taste sweetness on the tip of our tongues, we find that if you move the alcohol to the back of the mouth, or to the middle, you will effectively avoid the heat of the alcohol’s impact.
Before tasting, however, we would suggest that you rinse out your mouth with the spirit that you are about to evaluate, to completely free your mouth of any other influences, and to prepare you for the spirit you are about to examine. Rinse and spit, then re-taste.
While the spirit is in your mouth, breathe out very gently through your nose and examine the flavors that cross your palate. Now spit out the second time. Now wait, and watch how the elements of the spirit manifest themselves. Examine cleanliness, smoothness, richness (or lack thereof.) Is it clean? smooth? Without any detrimental aromas? Is it burning you or is it cool?
Breathe in through pursed lips gently. Quality spirit should immediately begin to become cool, slightly numbing, perhaps waxy on your lips, and almost menthol in the mouth. Are you salivating? Quality spirit should also leave your mouth completely clean, leaving the back of the tongue vulnerable to acidity, which will provoke the brain into sending saliva down to moisten things up. Saliva is the beginning step in the chain reaction that makes you hungry. Acidity is crucial when matching spirits with food, or when choosing your mixers for your cocktail.
Indeed, you can taste the difference, even when mixed in a cocktail, contrary to popular belief. Examine also the flavors that we picked up in the nose—can you add more that are more prevalent while inside the mouth and breathing out?
How is the length of finish? The complexity? Is it cloying or sweet? It should not be. It should be clean and smooth. If it is cloying or sweet, it may have had something(?) added back after distillation.
VERBIAGE FOR TASTING SPIRITS
SMELL / bouquet:
bananas, pineapples, papayas, plums, pears, pear drop, apples, apricots, figs, dates, oranges, tangerines, lemons, black cherries, grapefruits, honey-dew, cantaloupes, currants, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, limes, peaches, cherries, watermelon, green peppers, green olives, black olives, green beans, fennel, pomegranate, guava, passion fruit, mango, mamey, barley, wheat, fresh baked bread, dough, molasses, hogo, burnt sugar, maple syrup
nuts: acorns, chestnuts, almonds, toasted almonds, walnuts, bitter almonds, marzipan, hazelnuts, lychees, pistachios
florals: violets, lilacs, roses, irises, carnation, chrysanthemum, geraniums, sweet briar, heather, hyacinth, verbena, cloves, honeysuckle, jasmine, orange blossoms, apple blossoms, peonies, peach blossoms, chamomile
soil: earth/terroir, minerals, chalk, limestone, slate, clay, volcanic, pencil lead, barnyard, gravel, dark, petrol, tar, concrete, wet stones
alcohol: low, medium, high balanced, unbalanced, medicinal, hot, sharp, spirity, clean, smooth, unobtrusive, affected, compounded
spices/herbs: nutmeg, ginger, basil, oregano, dill, allspice, cardomom, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, anise, licorice, spearmint, peppermint, thyme, tarragon, sage, tobacco, grassy, herbal, herbaceous, fresh mown hay, weedy, chervil, cilantro, mint, spicy, high note spices, baking spices
forest/others: woods, cedar, cigar box, truffles, rooty, eucalyptus, mushrooms, tree bark, damp, musty, gamy, wet leaves, leather, saddle, animal, wet dog, bacon fat, meaty, horsy
cleanliness: clean, crisp, fresh, dirty
Evidence of fermentation, distillation, filtration, aging:
no oak, faint oak, strong oak
vanilla, concrete, coconut, sawdust in the nose, nutty, clean, fresh fruit, stemmy, weedy, rustic, port/sherry, acid in the nose, reduced, cooked, banana, bubble-gum, butterscotch, caramel, creamy/buttery, doughy, toast, spritzy quality in the nose, dirty/muddled, matchhead, yeast, grain, soapy, rubber, iodine, salty, saline, anise, barley, wheat, fresh baked bread, molasses, hogo, burnt sugar, maple syrup
MOUTH / Taste
Acid: flabby, low, medium, high, acidified,
citrus, green apple, fruit & acid balanced, fruit & acid unbalanced
Tannins: low, medium, high, gripping, over-tannic, short, long, fruit, wood, balanced, unbalanced
Sugar: extremely dry, dry, medium dry, sweet, very sweet
Texture: thin, light, velvety/soft, medium, round, full, creamy, waxy, lanolin
subtle, moderate, aggressive, forward
simple, medium, complex
Structure: Uninteresting, simple, medium, complex, exciting
Finish: long, medium, short