7 Best Practices for Tasting Spirits

Having worked in the Drinks industry for over 30 years, it is safe to say, Christine and I “taste” much more than we “drink.” What I mean is that rather than raising a glass of spirits to quench our thirst or wash down a meal, or get inebriated, we are most often taking sips of alcoholic drinks for the purpose of seeing how they taste and then analyzing the results. In fact, we most often spit out our sips, especially when attending a large tasting event. We often take notes, and we talk about the particulars with each other or with our colleagues. Anyone who is in the drinks industry does the same and anyone thinking of entering this business will need to learn some of the basics to do it more efficiently and with purpose. That said, I put together a list of what we consider the 7 best practices for tasting spirits.


1. Glass is Better than Plastic:

It might seem obvious, but if you have a choice between tasting something in glass or plastic, choose glass. Even better, choose the appropriate glassware that you would normally use to serve that particular spirit. In the brandy cellars of France, the cellar masters of Cognac, Calvados or Armagnac most often taste the developing eau de vie with what is known as a tulip glass. In Scotland you will most often find the cellar masters using the Glencairn glass, a sort of tulip glass without the stem. Both examples have a similar shape, designed to gradually funnel the aromas up an extended chimney to your nose. 


2. Essence and Time:

The condition of your palate is of utmost importance when tasting and it is believed that your taste buds are open and in prime condition just before lunch time, near morning’s end. The body as a whole, is at this time, usually well rested and the mouth is feeling clean and free from any distracting influences, including that after-breakfast brushing. Tasting of another sort (the kind you smoke) is famous these days for being at 4:20. For us at Heavenly Spirits, we look up at the clock, especially on a Friday and say, "It's 11:00 AM, what do you feel like tasting?"


3. Dry before Sweet:

Whenever more than one spirit is being tasted, the best tasting order is generally decided by a ranking system that puts light, white and dry before dark, sweet and enduring. One example that we regularly encounter is with our absinthe. Because of its specific and enduring, all-natural taste and smell, we always save it for the end, as it would undeniably have an effect on anything else we would be tasting afterward.


4. Telling a Book by its Cover:

While one can learn a great deal by observing the look and color of a particular spirit, it is wise not to presume anything until it’s been tasted. A good example of that is whisky or other brown spirits, where darker is not always tastier or older, as some spirit producers use caramel and other additives to influence the color. Characteristics one can gather through observation include: color, clarity, opacity, viscosity and texture.


5. Your Nose Knows:

Before one even tastes the spirit in the glass, it is important to have a good whiff of the aroma emanating from inside. Taste and smell are very closely associated and it is difficult to really have one without the cooperation of the other. A good tip for facilitating this collaboration between tongue and nose is to open your mouth slightly while sniffing. Also be careful not to bury your nose too deeply inside the glass for risk of burning your nasal passages. Instead, sneak up to the glass with your nose at different distances. It's also recommended to develop your own personal reference list of familiar scents and categories that you can draw on when trying to describe a spirit that moves you. Sweet, floral, earthy, or savory are just a few category examples.


6. Beginning, Middle and End:

When you finally have the opportunity to bring the spirited liquid to your mouth, do so with delicate care. I’ve too often witnessed novice participants at tasting events. They simply throw back whatever was in the glass or tasting cup without care or caution, making it near impossible to evaluate the potential artisanal masterpiece that just flew across their tongue. 


A healthy adult has about 10,000 taste buds and this diminishes to about 5,000 as a person gets older. A proper tasting experience can be broken down into three stages: 1. Entry, 2. Mid-palate, and 3. Finish. The “entry” is of course concerned with the moment that the spirit first enters your mouth and the impressions that it makes while encountering the tip of your tongue. “Mid-palate” describes what happens when during that first or second sip, you allow the spirit time to settle onto and then roll off your tongue. Finally, the “finish” is that part of the tasting experience that describes those last sensations just before, during and after you swallow. It is, in my opinion, near impossible to describe the finish without swallowing. However, spitting should always remain an option if necessary.


There is of course, no end to the individual taste sensations one might experience during anyone of these three stages. Christine and I know that tasting spirits is a very subjective process. Descriptions will be personally referenced by each individual. However, some of the descriptions might include general categories similar to those experienced when smelling, such as: sweet or savory, floral or earthy, mild or sharp, and fiery or round. 


7. Additional Considerations:

As smell is such an important aspect to tasting, it would be strongly advised not to show up to a spirit tasting event wearing perfume or cologne no matter how attractive you might find it, as it will greatly interfere with your ability to taste fairly and accurately. It also might effect those around you. If you have been tasting only wine before coming to the spirits, be sure to reset your palate with a water-cracker or bread and water before venturing in. At the very least, disregard your first sip of spirits. You might even just rinse your mouth with a small sip of the spirit then spit it out before you proceed to actually taste. As far as pairing a particular libation with food, that is a topic for a later discussion.


Finally, there will always be extremes in tasting protocol, and they are often employed by the organizers of international tasting competitions, such as the San Francisco Spirits Competition or the Ultimate Beverage Challenge. These competitions often do a layer of blind tastings or include several, separately-timed tastings of the same spirit. In his book, "Kindred Spirits," famed spirit aficionado, Paul Pacult, describes in detail his almost scientific regimen when tasting for the reviews he writes for his "Spirit Journal." That’s well and good for a professional reviewer like Paul. For most tasting situations however, I hope these basic tips are enough to provide a more enjoyable and productive experience while insuring a fair and unbiased spirit evaluation. Cheers!