When you’re first interested in spirits, it can be difficult to say what you like and what you don’t. This burns and that’s sweet, what else is there to say? When I first watched a review by Ralfy on Youtube, I was a little incredulous at the ridiculous variety of flavors he described!
But with practice, you can start to learn the same skill! It feels overwhelming at first, but after trying a few tastings and thinking carefully, your palate will start picking up more. I’m still amazed at Ralfy’s nose, but I’m a lot closer than I once was!
Okay, so it takes some repetition to become a connoisseur, and following these five steps without any extra reading or thought put into it doesn’t make you anywhere near an expert, but this is how a tasting works. And tasting thoughtfully is the first and arguably most important step.
Pour your spirit into a nosing glass, such as a brandy snifter or a Glencairn. The sides of the glass slope inward approaching the rim, which concentrates the aroma. Different nosing glasses have their pros and cons, but any will work. A tumbler will work in a pinch, but I have found the aroma seems to almost run away when there’s so much room for it to escape! You can still smell it, but not as clearly.
A brandy snifter is meant to hold exactly the amount of brandy that touches the rim if the glass is lain on its side, as a measure of a serving. For this reason, brandy is often poured into a snifter with the glass held parallel to the floor until the spirit touches the rim.
That’s the perfect measure!
Careful, though. There are glasses shaped the same way that are much too big for this! Not all will measure out a perfect ounce and a half.
Take note of the color. This can be colorless, as with a gin, vodka, or blanco tequila; neon-colored, as with many modern liqueurs; or one of a million shades of yellow and brown, as with whisky and other aged spirits (goldenrod, deep amber, etc.) Swill it in the glass and look at the tears, or “legs” as the fancy-fancies call them, on the inside of the glass. The thickness of these gives you an impression of how full-bodied and textured the spirit will be.
Nose the drink. Don’t stick your nose directly in it! Just hold the glass at a comfortable distance from your nose and breathe in the aroma wafting out. If you must bring it closer, do so, but if you start with your nose in the glass, the alcohol may burn your nasal passages, and your smell will be off for a little while.
While nosing, what do you smell? There’s the initial wave of ALCOHOL, but as your senses develop, more will come forward. This scotch, for example, may smell very much like honey. That gin, though still holding to the juniper traditions of the spirit, is also giving off a hint of… cucumber?
Bring it to your lips and take a tiny sip. The smallness of the sip is important. If you put too much in your mouth all at once, your tongue will have a hard time latching onto the flavors that should be readily available. Take that tiny sip and chew on it. Allow it to slide over your tongue. Is it thick and full-bodied? Or is it thin and watery? Open your mouth and exhale through your nose. What do you taste? It may just taste like brandy when you started, but now you may be noticing fig, or caramel. These aren’t ingredients; there’s no fig or caramel in the brandy, but they are flavors you can still recognize.
Swallow (or spit, depending on the type of tasting) and exhale through your nose. Notice the way the flavor stays on your tongue and breath. This is the finish. Is it long and drawn-out? Or does it vanish without a trace? Do any new flavors come out?
Bonus Round! (optional)
After you’ve tasted your spirit neat, you may want to try adding a few drops of water. Don’t add too much! You don’t want to drown it. Many beginning drinkers have a hard time with the alcohol bite, but it’s a necessary vehicle for the flavors we’re looking for. What you’re trying to do by adding water is to cut down the alcohol just enough so that it doesn’t get in the way. This can bring out new flavors and aromas. Go through the above process again, and see if you can fill in any more notes you’ve missed!
Some more advice
It’s useful to taste in a pair or a group! Other people can often point out flavors you might have missed (and especially when you’re starting out, you will miss things). Have fun with it!