How to Taste Spirits (Part 1)

The Bourbon Concierge, How to Taste Spirits

My background is in wine. Through years of training, I have learned how to studiously taste and detect the differences between various varietals, regions, and vintages of wine from all over the world and yet, almost none of that training applies when it comes to tasting spirits.

Tasting a new (either new or new to you) spirit for the first time is similar to meeting a new lover. You introduce yourself with intention, take your time studying the details and nuances of their face and the contours of their body. You don’t spend time comparing them to past lovers but rather appreciate their individuality and differences. You’re careful not to overwhelm. Now of course, there is lots of documentation as to what the world perceives as beautiful, but the most important opinion is your own—the same applies to spirits. There are lots of articles and lists centering around what “The Best Bourbon to Drink in the Summer.” That’s fine, those lists can be helpful, but (and this cannot be overstated enough) when it comes to drinking spirits, the most important opinion is your own.

When I approach a new spirit for the first time I like to follow a series of steps in order to get to know it better. I am going to convey these steps to you in a two-part series. The first part will focus on the visual and aromatic qualities of what’s in your glass, while the second part will focus on your palate. Let’s jump in—

First, start with a clean dry glass appropriate for nosing. How do you know it’s appropriate for nosing, you ask? A glass is appropriate for nosing if you can stick your nose in it. Sure, there are lots of glasses out there that are “perfect for evaluating spirits” and they’re all fantastic! If one of those glasses is your preferred vessel to taste spirits from, that’s great. However, if you are new to tasting spirits and do not have a Glencairn or a snifter there are still lots of options that will work well for you. Personally, when I’m tasting intensively, I like to use a Glencairn or a wine glass—both feature a sort of aromatic funneling effect that is ideal for me. Otherwise, if I am tasting a new spirit or just enjoying a dram while hanging out with my dog and partner, I have been known to use a shallow mason jar or rocks glass. As long as the glass is clean, dry, and free of debris, it will work for you just fine. This is also a good time to grab a tasting journal or notebook if you’d like and a dropper of distilled water if you have one, if not a small glass of room temperature water (distilled or filtered preferably)—this will be explained in greater detail later in this post.

After you’ve gathered your glassware and your water, pour about one fluid ounce of your spirit into the glass. One ounce is the ideal amount of spirit when analytically tasting, it allows for plenty of headspace and plenty of sample to taste, but not so much so that if you find you don’t like it, you don’t have to feel guilty about disposing of it. Remember, you can always add more spirit to your glass if you find you love it. When you’ve poured your spirit into your glass, don’t add any water or ice. You want to start with as pure an expression as possible.

Now that your spirit is in the glass and you have the tools necessary to taste, take the time to evaluate the appearance of the spirit in your glass. What is the color like? The texture? Is there any particulate floating in it or resting on the bottom of the glass? Hold your glass over a blank piece of white paper to help you to better note the color of the spirit. This isn’t a practice you need to spend much time on but taking a few seconds to really look at your spirit will tell you quite a bit about it.

Up until now you’ve been visually evaluating the spirit in your glass similar to the way someone catches your eye from across the room. Now you’re going to introduce yourself and really get to know it. Bring your glass to your nose. Before nosing your spirit, part your lips just slightly so as not to burn your nose. When you part your lips slightly while nosing a spirit, you’re allowing your olfactory system to do its job effectively. You’re allowing the molecules that would otherwise burn your nostrils to flow up your nasal passage and out your mouth rather than being trapped with nowhere to go.

Focus the spirit under each nostril independently, although we do not always recognize it your nostrils are often not working at the same time.
Do not swirl your spirit, it will only aggravate the ethanol molecules and will make it more difficult for you to pinpoint particular aromatics and may burn your nasal passages. Now try to identify what your smelling—this is an old sommelier trick, but I like to identify three fruit and three non-fruit aromas. Be as specific as you can (i.e. granny smith apple, Meyer lemon, strawberry jam, nutmeg, sage, vanilla, coconut, etc). Does what your smelling remind you of something specific? Does it take you back to a certain place and time? Your grandmother’s kitchen? A field of sunflowers on a September day in North Carolina? Does it remind you of the perfume worn by your first love? Working towards trying to recognize those specific sensory memories will further develop your relationship with spirits and may allow you to better appreciate them. Additionally, it may make otherwise intimidating expressions more accessible and easier to discuss with friends and tasting buddies.
In part 2 of this introduction, you will learn how to taste and interpret what you’re tasting analytically.

In the meantime, enjoy some tasty spirits, and Cheers!