How to taste & assess spirits
Words by Simon Difford
Developing a good tasting technique and building a memory bank of flavours is essential to being able to make an informed judgment as to a spirits style and quality.
When assessing a liquor it is essential that the tasting tales place in as neutral environment as possible. Choose a quiet location to help you concentrate and ideally assess the appearance of samples in natural daylight against a white background.
Be aware of, and try to avoid, smells from your surroundings such as perfume, coffee, flowers, fresh paint and kitchen/food. Obviously no one should smoke but also be aware of lingering cigarette smoke on clothes and don't share glasses with smokers as their hands and breath may also taint your sample. Avoid washing your hands with perfumed soap prior to the tasting.
Ideally taste samples alongside comparative products you are already familiar with. This control sample will help you discover the nuances of the other samples. Ideally you should have a control sample which is of a similar style to what you are tasting. E.g. a bourbon alongside other bourbons and a Speyside against other Speyside single malts.
Tasting with others is also beneficial as some people are more sensitive to certain flavours. However, quietly assess and record your notes before discussing with your counterparts so as not to influence each other's initial findings. When hearing what your fellow tasters say, beware the power of suggestion. Don't feel pressurised to change your notes to echo theirs.
It is common for a group of tasters to disagree on flavour nuances but agree on what score best represents their qualitative assessment.
Tastings are best conducted late morning when the onset of hunger naturally heightens your senses to help you locate food, so improving your ability to smell and taste. The same is true late afternoon - so long as your lunch was light and not too late.
Tasting on an empty stomach can be made more palatable (literally) by nibbling some plain oat cakes or water biscuits between samples and rinsing with water. Biscuits are particularly useful when attempting to taste a lot of samples at one sitting as the saliva produced by chewing helps reset your palate. I favour oat cakes over water biscuits due to their texture.
Don't rush your tasting. Some spirits take a while to reveal themselves. Return to samples and reassess them. Beware that exposure to the air will open up and change some liquors. Cover samples which are left to sit - ideally with a purpose made watch glass, but uncoated and unprinted paper will suffice.
The shape of the glass used will have a dramatic effect on aromas and, to an extent, also flavour. A tulip shaped glass with sides that close inwards towards the top helps concentrate aromas, ideally a glass made to the ISO (International Standards Organisation) tasting glass specifications such as the Arcoroc Viticole 21.5cl/7.25oz (65ml diameter x 155mm high) stemmed glass. This is an ideal shape and size to hold a 25 to 50ml tasting sample. If you don't have ISO glasses then small wine glasses are an acceptable alternative.
Be sure your glasses are clean and nose each empty glass before charging to check for the smell of detergent or glass cloths. Beware the smell left by some machine rinse aids and consider washing by hand and thoroughly rinsing each glass with water.
You should have a means to record your reflections, either a pen and paper or digital device. Consider a spittoon and always have water to hand for cleansing your palate and diluting samples. I use a Seripettor bottle-top dispenser to deliver exact measures of water into my samples at high pressure. Press down the top of this piece of lab equipment and an exact amount of water will be sprayed into your sample (I've set mine at 5ml). The force of the jet as well as the dilution helps release aromas.
You should have water to hand, both for diluting samples and also refreshing your palate as you go. Beware of the chlorine in municipal water supplies and consider using a water filter to remove this. Alternatively use distilled water or mineral water to dilute your samples.
For & against blind tasting
Some insist that all tastings should be conducted blind - laid out in advance with the identity of each sample concealed. This ensures any preconceptions due to branding, packaging and previous experiences do not influence your assessment of samples. However, others (including me) argue that these preconceptions are inescapable when in the world outside the tasting room so are intrinsic to how each product should be considered.
Always beware of the alcoholic strength of the sample you are assessing. You may be given a production sample at 70% or above, which could be harmful, and will certainly be unpleasant if digested neat. Products labelled cask strength, navy strength or export strength are likely to have a higher alcohol strength. If comparing spirits with different strengths then consider diluting to roughly equal strengths.
High strength spirits in particular benefit from diluting with up to 25% water (1:4). This opens the bouquet and releases aromas as the alcohol reacts with the water but will not overly dilute, leaving some of the spirit sensation. Be consistent as to the degree of dilution and always nose and taste samples neat first, and then reassess with dilution.
The tasting should be conducted at room temperature. If a sample is chilled then it will omit less aromas. Conversely, gently heating a sample by cupping the glass in your hands will help release aromas.
You should arrange your samples according to their strength of flavour with the lightest sampled first, moving to full-bodied and lastly those with bold flavours such as smoke. For spirits such as grappa and pisco, taste non-aromatic before aromatic samples. If it's a Scotch malt whisky tasting then a broad rule of thumb is to arrange according to region, starting with Lowland malts, then Highland, Speyside and Island, and finishing with Islay malts. If you're organising a vertical tasting comprising different aged samples of the same spirit then sample from young to old.
Don't attempt to assess too many samples in one sitting or you may find your palate tires after just six samples, and ten spirits are a lot to properly consider in one tasting session.
Write or type your thoughts for each sample, being careful to also note as much information from the bottle's label as possible. Be sure to include the alcohol strength, any batch number and production date. Over time you'll build a reference work of what spirits you like and dislike.
There is a logical order in which to tackle samples, firstly assess their appearance, then the aroma and lastly taste. Add water and re-evaluate the aroma and taste. Note the aftertaste and record your conclusion.
Assess the clarity. Is the spirit clear and bright or does the sample have a slight cloudiness? Look for deposits from precipitation. If your sample is dull, rather than bright, then it has not been chill-filtered. This is more evident if the sample turns slightly opaque when water is added. This is due to fatty acids held in dilution at high strength being released when the alcohol strength is lowered by the addition of the water.
Watching the bubbles, or lack of bubbles, formed when a sealed bottle of spirit is shaken is an indicator of its alcohol strength. Bubbles only form and linger if the spirit is over 50% alcohol by volume. The more bubbles formed, and the longer they last, the more alcoholic the sample.
Swirl the glass and assess the spirit's viscosity by observing the 'legs' or 'tears' that fall and create a pattern on the inside the glass. Are the legs thin or fat? Are they close together or are large curves formed?
Long legs indicate high alcohol while tears which hang rather than falling quickly suggest an oily spirit. Thick heavy legs which fall quickly are a sign of added sugar. The spirit will coat the inside of your mouth in a similar manner to the inside of the glass and the slower the legs fall down the glass, the more full-bodied the spirit will be in your mouth. Spirits are judged to have a 'light', 'medium' or 'full' body depending on their mouth-feel and those with tears that hang are medium or full-bodied.
All spirits are clear when they leave the still's condenser but, after ageing, spirits such as whiskey can range in colour from very pale straw to pale golden, then golden amber, deep coppery amber, tawny brown, deep mahogany and even liquorice, with every shade imaginable in between.
A spirits hue can tell you a great deal about how long, and in what kind of cask, it was aged. However, be warned, a darker colour does not necessarily mean the spirit was aged longer than a sample with a lighter shade. New 'virgin' casks will impart flavour and colour more quickly than first-fill casks (previously seasoned with bourbon, sherry or wine) while re-fill casks that have been used a couple of times before will be slower to flavour and colour.
The type of wood will also greatly affect the colour imparted by the cask. American oak (as is typical of ex-bourbon barrels) tends to give spirits such as whisky a light golden hue, while reddish-mahogany coloured whiskies have usually been matured in European oak (most usually sherry seasoned casks). A deep amber could indicate a whiskey was matured in a combination of American and European oak casks.
Although not allowed in the likes of bourbon, beware that the addition of caramel colouring is commonplace in many spirits. Correctly used, this should only be for colour correction and standardisation of colour, rather than colouring per sey. Small amounts of caramel are tasteless but if over applied you'll see a corresponding dark hue and be able to detect caramel in both on both nose and palate.
2. Aroma (nose)
A spirit's aroma may tell you more about that sample than taste and professional blenders tend to assess samples more by their aroma.
Bring the glass slowly towards your nose, concentrating on detecting and remembering the initial aromas as you do so. Don't start by taking a big sniff as a blast of spirit could anesthetise your nose, particularly when nosing cask-strength and other high strength spirit.
That first whiff is often the best indicator. You'll never have another first smell of that spirit so be sure to make the most of it. Some people prefer to nose with their mouth slightly open, others closed. Decide what is best for you and then be consistent in future nosings.
Swirling the glass as in wine tasting can be detrimental when tasting spirits as this tends to release ethanol notes rather than the finer nuances of the spirit.
If the spirit has a cork closure, beware of possible cork taint, a distinctive musty smell usually caused by the presence of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) transferred from the cork to the spirit. Corked spirits, particularly white spirits, will have notes resembling a mouldy newspaper or a damp basement. TCA is harmless to human health but fatal to the olfactory appreciation and assessment of spirits. Discard and source a fresh bottle.
Samples should be at room temperature. Chilled samples tend to yield fewer aromas. Conversely, slightly warming samples by cupping the glass in your hand will release more aromas.
After an initial nosing and tasting at neat strength, dilute the sample and reassess the aroma.
3. Taste (palate)
The human tongue can only detect five basic taste sensations: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami, the latter is best describes as savoury and indeed it comes from the Japanese word (うま味) meaning 'pleasant savory taste'. So much of what we consider as taste is actually mostly smell as the mouth and nose are connected. Hence, as in wine tasting, it is common to see professional spirits tasters pursing their lips whilst holding a sample in their mouth and drawing in air.
Hold the sample in your mouth while you assess it. Look for flavour profiles and then expand on them. If it has citrus notes are they lemon, lime or orange. If floral, what kind of flower? If spicy, is it black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon or other specific spices? Is the sample clean and fresh or does it have a mouldy, vegetal character?
Consider the mouthfeel, or body of the spirit. Is it heavy and syrupy in the mouth or light and thin? How does the taste profile change while in your mouth? Don't just taste, think about what you taste and if the spirit is well balanced. Note your thoughts down and then reassess the sample with the addition of water. This will release more flavours as the spirit reacts with the water.
4. Aftertaste (finish)
Now consider the aftertaste of the spirit. Does the flavour linger in your mouth? If so, what flavours remain? Is the aftertaste spicy, bitter or sweet. As with the palate, note down your findings.
It is advisable to return to a sample after 15-20 minutes to assess how it has developed with air contact and continued reaction with any added water.
Having tasted and assessed the sample did you like it and if so how much? This tends to be expressed with a score out of five, ten or one hundred. Whichever scale you use be consistent. Here at diffordsguide we use five with the occasional great sample with that extra something being awarded a coveted '5+/5'.