How to taste spirits like a pro?
Words by Timo Janse &
Photography by WSET
Most of us have experienced the awkward moment when we are presented an alcoholic spirit and are asked to taste and value its quality.
What to do? What not to do? And most importantly, how do we value what's in front of us? Nick King explains the right approach, so next time we will not have to put on an act as if we know; we actually do!
With thousands of spirits available on the market and more and more exciting new craft varieties being introduced, how can we logically assess them to establish which are the best or, more importantly, which we each personally like the best?
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting Spirits helps anyone from beginner enthusiasts to aspiring experts learn to taste in a logical, systematic, and professional manner. It is designed to build individuals’ skills at identifying key aromas and flavor characteristics as they progress through WSET’s globally recognized qualifications. Each characteristic gives an insight into the production process of the drink, and on a WSET course they are discussed in detail.
The Approach is made up of four key steps:
First, assess how the spirit appears in the glass. Is it clear or a bit hazy? What colour is it? How deep is that colour?
You are looking to get an initial sense of production techniques that might affect colour and flavor, such as oak aging.
When nosing a spirit there is no need to swirl the glass vigorously. This will release a lot of alcohol and could give you an unpleasant shock. Sniff the drink and build up a picture of the aromas slowly.
How intense are the aromas? Are they very strong? Reflect on what the appearance of the spirit might have indicated and whether this proves true on the nose.
Now assess what those aromas are. Spirits have a wide range of expressions depending on their base ingredient (usually a fruit or grain) and key flavor influencers such as added botanicals or aging. Think of it like a musical chord; they are always more interesting than one simple note.
Add a drop of water to soften the alcohol. Take a sip and let it coat your mouth, then think of two things: how does it taste and how does it feel.
The flavours, and their intensity, should be largely identical in your mouth to on the nose, but may be slightly more apparent or diminished. Now is also the time to assess the level of sweetness.
Ideally the feel will be slightly warming, smooth and mouth-coating.
Finally, assess the nature and length of the finish. How many flavors could you taste and how did they develop in the mouth? Did they linger after the first sip or did it have a clean end?
For the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting we use a rating scale of poor to outstanding to assess the quality of a drink, and note, we are assessing quality here not just whether we personally liked it – that should be judged separately. Consider whether the aromas were balanced, complex and pleasing on the nose and palate. This will give you a good indication with regards to quality.
Think about the notes you have written in each section and grade the drink. Then use your notes to compare several different types and decide your personal favorites.
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is the largest global provider of qualifications in the field of wines, spirits and sake. Courses are available at all levels from beginner to professional and offered through over 700 Approved Programme Providers across the world. To find a course provider near you visit
WSET will be at Perfect Serve Barshow Amsterdam on 28 & 29 May. Visit their stand to learn more about wines and spirits courses and take their ‘Top of the Class’ challenge!