Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How I Taste Spirits

Since I've been doing a lot more detailed spirits reviews over the last year or so, I figured it'd be a good time to explain the process I use to taste and evaluate them.

To begin with, having proper glassware helps a lot. While there's nothing wrong with drinking out of a regular rocks glass, it's a lot harder to catch the smells coming off of the spirit when it's in a wide-mouthed glass. While the standard for spirits tasting is the Glencairn glass, official ones are often rather pricey unless you purchase in bulk. I've found a couple of alternatives that have worked pretty well for me.

One the right is the Vinoteque snifter that I originally purchased from Kitchen Kaboodle. Unfortunately it appears that they don't carry it anymore, but you can still find it in sets of 6 from other online stores. It has the shape you're looking for in tasting glasses, where a wider bowl constricts to a smaller opening at the top of the glass. This gives the spirit a large surface area for volatile compounds to evaporate and then concentrates those volatile compounds around the lip of the glass. On the left is one of the glasses that comes in the Arran 10 Gift Set. Those glasses have a very similar shape to the Vinoteque, but they're a little bit smaller, which means that you can still get a decent sense of the nose from a fairly small 1/2-3/4 oz pour. I like these glasses a lot as they're very stable and will right themselves even when tipped over. Admittedly you do have to buy some whisky to get them, but it is very good whisky.

My usual strategy is to pour just enough spirit into the glass that it reaches the widest spot in the glass. That way there spirit has the most surface area that it's going to get. I usually start my reviews by letting the spirit sit in the glass for 5-10 minutes before I start writing notes. It takes a little while for the volatiles to build up to a high enough concentration in the air within the glass. In the meantime, I'll usually sip some water to clear my palate as much as possible. Once I start smelling, I like to smell from different angles around the edge and just within the rim of the glass. Compounds will concentrate in different parts and so you can find different smells in different places. With that said, I don't like to stick my nose right in the glass as that usually leads to getting a nose full of alcohol, which can get in the way of finding more subtle elements.

As per some of the advice I got at Cocktail Camp, it's usually best to be wary about the impressions you get during the first sip of a spirit. Even if it's been a while since your last drink or meal, there will always be some residual flavors from whatever was last consumed. That first sip will help to coat the palate and wash away anything besides the spirit I'm trying to taste. After that, I usually try to take small sips so that my palate isn't overwhelmed by the rush of alcohol, especially with higher proof spirits. I want to let the spirit move across my tongue in a controlled fashion so that I have the time to get a handle on what I'm tasting at each point. While the tongue map theory has been been disproven, spirits will present different flavors as they move across the mouth. It's likely a complex interplay between the threshold detection of various flavors by different parts of the tongue, how different compounds dissolve and volatilize, and the kinetics of flavor compounds binding to taste and smell receptors. Which is all just to say, if you're trying to analyze a spirit, don't just toss it back. It takes time to tease out the various elements that present themselves and letting this spirit linger in your mouth will help that process.

When it comes to taking notes, I'm pretty old-fashioned.

I have the tiniest handwriting

I have a Moleskine notebook that I use for taking notes. It began mostly because I happened to have it on hand, but it's turned out to be a good choice because it's easy to slip in a pocket when I'm going out to a bar and want to take some notes about whatever I happen to end up drinking.

I break down my analyses by nose, taste and finish, then further by what I get drinking the spirit neat or after adding a few drops of water. I mostly just write down impressions as I find them, but with taste I do try to add descriptors to indicate where on the palate I noticed the flavor so that I can reconstruct the temporal experience.

Unless I'm drinking at a bar, I'll always try to taste a spirit on multiple occasions on different days. It's rare that I feel like I can tease out everything a spirit has to offer in one go and it helps to solidify my opinion if I can find the same or at least similar flavors over the course of multiple tastings. This means that the reviews I post here are, unless otherwise noted, composites of multiple experiences. Like I said, I  can usually find what I think of as a coherent whole for a spirit, but there are occasions where I've found something one time and never again. While consistency is a good thing to strive for, I have found that tasting a spirit in a different place can make a significant difference in what I can find in it. I don't know if that's a matter of different environments having different ambient smells or simply different contexts nudging my brain into having a slightly different experience, but it can be valuable to see whether or not that makes a difference for you.

Lastly, don't feel bad if you can't find the same laundry list of flavors in a review you just read. It takes time and experience to train your brain to pick up the more subtle elements. Just compare my first attempt at a detailed review with my latest whisky review. In reviewing those ryes, I was only able to pick out the most prominent elements of the spirits - namely grain, vanilla and spice. After trying more spirits and getting a better sense of how to break down and describe what I'm tasting, there's a lot more to be found. So as with so many things, it's not that the reviewers are inherently better, it just takes practice. Additionally, have a broad base of experiences tasting different foods will help to form associations with flavors and smells that will make it easier to put a name on what you're tasting and smelling in a spirit. It's hard to explain something if you don't have the words to describe it.

With all of that said, everyone's experiences are unique. Just because one person finds a particular flavor or smell in a spirit doesn't mean that you'll find exactly the same things. There's an incredibly complex relationship between what's in a spirit and what your brain says that it's experiencing. With so many variables, nothing is 100% certain. That's why I've never put numbers on the reviews I post here because I don't think that there's any way for me to be completely objective in rating one spirit as better or worse than another. What I taste is going to change from day to day depending on the setting, what I've ate recently, my mood, and any other number of variables. I'd much rather just tell you what I've been able to get out of a spirit and let you decide whether or not it sounds appealing.

If you're interested in trying taste spirits in a more conscious, deliberative fashion, I hope some of these tips have been helpful. I think there's a lot to be gained from paying close attention to what a spirit has to offer, but ultimately the goal is just to enjoy what you're drinking, no matter how you're doing it.


  1. Excellent tasting-process post! I've been using Moleskine notebooks for tasting notes too. Feels like it suits the whisky experience.

  2. Now I want to see your lab notebook. :)

    Seriously, though, I love this post, particularly learning how to taste and how that ability evolves. Also the impact of context.

    When I lived in CA, I did a *lot* of wine tasting and when I look back at some of the notes I kept, it's interesting to see how the way I taste has changed. Also, I learned to better recognize what things I'll like after I take them home. Or what will reveal more that I will enjoy once I get it home. A wine in a tasting room pour can be a lot different than opening a bottle at least to me. I like how you've captured that same experience when tasting spirits. And for myself, certainly my love of wine and my love of whisky have informed each other.

  3. Another excellent review, Jordan. You and I taste whisky in virtually exactly the same way. It was fascinating to read it and have the rationales explicitly spelled out. I've been thinking about writing a post like this. Now I'll just link to yours. I couldn't say it any better.

    1. Thanks, Josh. It'd been bouncing around in my skull for a while, so it was nice to actually sit down and write everything out.

  4. Yes! The Glencairn glass, which originated in Scotland and has the shape of the traditional “nosing copitas” used in whiskey labs in Scotland. This is a good reference in trying out styles in tasting spirits. I do remember 2 patterns in comparing the liquors: the horizontal and vertical tasting flight. The horizontal, compares the sprits that are almost the same in character, but different in distillery, while, the vertical, has spirits in different ages, but are distilled the same way.

    Corey Glenn