Becoming an expert taster

Tasting Analytically, Ratings, And Enhancing Your Drinking Pleasure 

Tasting distilled spirits formally, either for a review or as part of a consultation, is the hardest job that I do. By spirits, of course, I refer to brandies, liqueurs, whiskeys, gins, tequilas, mezcals, vodkas, or rums, meaning the potables that undergo first fermentation then distillation and sometimes maturation in wood barrels. The amount of concentration required to properly and meticulously identify subtle characteristics in spirits is enormous.

Analyzing spirits is far more demanding in nature and practice than scrutinizing wine, sake or beer, which are all fermented beverages. This is primarily due to the elevated alcohol by volume levels of the majority of distilled liquids. Fermented libations typically range from as low as 3 percent alcohol (light beer) up to 17 to 18 percent in the case of some very strong ales and wines.

Drinkable liquids that are fermented (beer or wine) and then heated, vaporized, and cooled in a traditional pot (think your tea kettle) are made in individual batches that after two distillations range generally from 50 to 72 percent alcohol. This is pot still distillation. The more modern column still system (continuous distillation) creates liquids that can range from a low of 30 to 32 percent alcohol all the way up to 95.57 percent alcohol when the gases contain the same degree of ethanol as the liquid, becoming neutral grain spirit or NGS. High alcohol content automatically makes spirits significantly more complex than their fermented cousins.

That said, consumers too can learn through several sequential steps that, when used properly, will increase their enjoyment of spirits without a great deal of rigor or pain. There is no magic to transforming oneself into even a moderately astute judge of spirits. Much of the process of becoming a better taster involves three fundamental components: one, the common sense utilization of one’s senses, knowing what they do and getting them to work in unison; two, repetitive tasting practice, using a tasting system that works specifically for you; and three, first recognizing and then reeducating your inherent memory abilities and acknowledging how they are tethered to your senses, in particular, your most primal sense, smell.

All that I am talking about is deeper personal appreciation, not fanaticism, snobbism or, worst of all, showboating. Face it, we’ve all been exposed to pontificating, insecure twits who, in effusive fits when tasting a wine, an ale, or a whiskey, spout absurd descriptive, often anthropomorphic terms (i.e., muscular, brooding, buxom), and philosophical drivel. When some idiot utters something like, “This single malt is more Ariana Grande while that one is more Rhianna,” I leave the room. Keener appreciation is never about elitism or exclusivity. It is always about heightened personal enjoyment, sharing, inclusion, and sensible communication in understandable terms.


Proper environment
          One’s evaluation environment should be clean, well-lighted, and appropriate to the task at hand. My formal reviews are conducted solely in my office at the Spirit Journal HQ in New York’s Hudson Valley and never outside that space, but that’s for a highly regimented professional. For your informal purposes choose a cozy sitting room, den, dining room, or kitchen where you and your friends will be comfortable.

            Glassware is a key element. Never, ever use plastic cups because plastic can impart unpleasant odors and flavors to delicate beverages. Plastic is a petroleum-based product, so need I elaborate? I utilize the same small volume, thin crystal glasses for all spirit categories, a combination of stemmed copitas, small wineglasses, 6-ounce Riedel Vinum Port glasses, and 5-ounce Glencairn whisky glasses that I wash myself by hand without the use of detergent. My tasting glasses are air-dried because sometimes even cotton towels and/or paper towels can leave residue or fibers that can later be mistaken as sediment. I wipe the outside after they have dried to remove spots. I haven’t used fishbowl-like snifters for well over twenty-five years because they tend to diffuse key aromatic properties. Chimney-shaped glasses funnel aromas upward, which, for me, is desirable. For your purposes at home, just use 6 or 8-ounce white wine glasses, which will handily serve all spirits varieties well. For whiskeys and brandies, you might consider using rocks glasses.

Spitting, numbers, timing, amounts
            I believe in spitting ALWAYS in order to avoid even light inebriation and, therefore, I use opaque plastic, 16-ounce beer cups for spittoons. Swallowing samples is ultimately counterproductive to becoming a better taster. One has to remain clear-headed and mentally agile. As a matter of policy, I never sample more than eight spirits in any one session and mostly hold the total to six per morning. Amateurs should heed that advice and, in my opinion, should refrain from overburdening anyone’s taste buds or sensibilities, including their own. No more than one to two ounces (or, about fifty ml) per sample is needed for a thorough evaluation.

I usually taste early in the morning, normally from 8:30 AM to around noon, which most people understandably blanch at. But I am a card-carrying morning person, so that time suits me best. An unadulterated, fresh, morning palate is preferred for my purposes but is clearly impractical for informal tastings. For most consumers, weekend afternoons or evenings are easier to hold tastings. Have plenty of water available. I like still water in between tastes, which cleanses the palate well. Sometimes, however, a low-sodium fizzy water, in particular, San Pellegrino or Perrier, also works well. Mild cheeses are recommended for serving with spirits, such as Muenster or Monterey Jack. Bread or unsalted water crackers (Carr’s are best) are also excellent alcohol absorbers.

If I begin to experience palate fatigue, meaning the inability to use all my senses, I stop for the day. I also taste products from the same category in one session. Don’t mix, say, two blanco tequilas, three Canadian whiskeys, and two London Dry gins. Doesn’t work. Keep like-with-like for the purpose of context and focus.

Ratings and the positive effects of group discussion
          What my critiques come down to are these two salient points: First, does this product stack up well in relation to the specific category’s established, contemporary standards? And, second, would I recommend this product to a friend, reader or colleague? Nothing is more important than the second question. All criticism forums, meaning book reviews, movie reviews, car reviews, et cetera, boil down to this query.

For three decades, I have employed a one to five star rating system, with one being the lowest score and five the highest. Here’s what they signify:

One star red flags that particular product‘s quality as being woefully below the established standard for the category. One star products are what I consider to be undrinkable, unbalanced, and are deemed as being Not Recommended. They can smell and taste rancid, attic-like, musty, moldy, or unclean. These are very different traits to something like botanical, herbal, vegetal, mossy/earthy, oily, or dusty, which actually can all be considered good attributes depending on the category.

Two stars indicate an item that is average when judged against its peers and is, therefore, Not Recommended. These spirits may be drinkable and without severe failings, but in the end they are uninspiring and lacking any special merit. I would not tell a friend to buy them.

Three stars mean that the character profile of this item is better than average and exceeds what would be considered as the norm for product quality of this category. Three star products are always Recommended. I would advise a friend to hunt them down.

Four stars point out products that exceed what is thought to be average/fair or better than average. Four star ratings spotlight a product of authentic quality and distinct personality. These high quality items come Highly Recommended. I would, with gusto, counsel my friends to buy these products.

Five stars celebrate a watershed, benchmark product whose seamless quality is as ideal as an item can get within that category. These are the iconic, flawless products that can be thought of as defining a spirits category due to their harmonious natures in which all the chemical components—alcohol, acids, base materials, pH, wood use, if any—are perfectly integrated through outstanding base material selection, fermentation, distillation, maturation, filtration, blending and/or other production techniques. These hallmark spirits receive my Highest Recommendation.

I encourage weekend or casual tasters to use some sort of scoring system (100-point scale or 1 to 10 are also fine) to render some sort of informal ranking. A rating system provides a point of debate amongst the tasters and the more debate the better in order to establish the group’s quality standards. In fact, I always urge consumers to taste in groups because hearing what other people are experiencing is the best way to learn and to develop a personal vocabulary. Group tasting opens vistas and can bolster or counter your own viewpoint, both of which are useful.

Alcohol by volume, or abv, and adding water issues
          As part of every review I conduct, the abv is cited for informational purposes. For your purposes, be aware of the abv of every entered spirit so that you can set the order of tasting, lowest abv to highest, youngest spirit to oldest.

Typically, when you come across whiskey, rum or brandy abv that’s wildly divergent from the standard 40%-43% abv level, such as 59.2%, 63.3% or 49.9%, it nearly always signals a “cask strength” spirit. This means that the spirit was drawn from the barrel or holding tank and bottled without dilution to a lower range of strength. Make sure that these are last in the line-up. If you place them before spirits with lower abv, they will eclipse the lighter spirits. Also, I urge at-home tasters to add flat (non-effervescent) bottled mineral water to the cask strength spirits in a ratio of ½ ounce of mineral water to every 1½ ounces of spirit. Dilution accomplishes two things: one, it stimulates aroma because water separates the molecules, thereby releasing more aroma, and, two, the reduced strength makes it easier to assess the spirit’s characteristics.

The Value & Purpose of an Evaluation Regimen

I take twenty to thirty minutes for every formal product evaluation, which is excessive for at-home tasters who shouldn’t need more than three to five minutes for each spirit. That is one reason why I am an admittedly deliberate critic. Your purpose is pure enjoyment, and therefore is much less strenuous. Discovery should be fun, not demanding. Perhaps the biggest factor in becoming a good taster, whether you are a professional or not, is to formulate and then follow a tasting routine. One’s personal system should never waver once you’ve found one that’s comfortable.

The four-sense system I’ve used for the past three decades, but that you should moderate for your own reasons of comfort and convenience, goes as follows:

          Sight: First, but not the most vital stage, is looking at the spirit under a bright, “daylight” lamp. At this point, I’m gauging the color (brown, yellow, red, green, blue and their various multitudinous shades (Google “shades of brown or orange” or “yellow or red” for more breakdowns), the clarity (is it opaque or translucent?), and the overall cleanliness (do I see any floating sediment and if so, what does it appear to be, fabric, cork, minerals, oils?). Most of all, does it own an appealing appearance? This stage should not consume more than ten to fifteen seconds.

          Smell: Next comes the most pivotal phase of the whole exercise, the one that, for me, makes up the majority of my final score. Smell is our most primal sense (olfaction). The olfactory cortex is located in the segment of the brain called the limbic system, that impacts creativity, memory, and emotions. It is the only sense that triggers the eerie feeling of déjà vu. Smell directs and impacts the sense of taste by up to 80 to 90 percent, according to some studies, and furthermore due to its fundamental status allows us to identify danger, mates, and food.

Here’s how it all works in a nutshell. While the sense of taste (tongue and approximately 10,000 taste buds in humans) can only identify five fundamental tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami), most human olfactory mechanisms can, if trained, recognize up to 10,000 singular odor molecules. Inhaling a spirit draws in hundreds, more likely thousands of tiny odor molecules into the nasal cavity. When they land on our moist, mucus-coated, one-square-inch, subdermal receptors (nasal epitheliums), the receptors instantaneously relay data to the olfactory cortex, which causes a reaction of “Hey, I recognize that rose petal scent and I like it” or “Whoa, that smells like Uncle Ned’s work shoes, which I don’t like very much”.

Our brain’s limbic system is directly connected to the body’s apparatus (pituitary gland and hypothalamus) that controls the hormones that stimulate sensations we all uniformly experience, such as appetite, stress, body temperature, and the ability to concentrate. That is why the sense of smell is so potent, so intimate every minute of every day we are conscious, and why it is the most critical part of your spirit evaluations.

Step-by-step, here’s how I do what I do. I smell every item in three stages. I take a series of gentle sniffs right after the pour, holding the glass just beneath my nose, lips parted to help circumvent the rush of alcohol. I allow it to sit undisturbed for another three minutes and at the five-minute mark I take deeper, longer inhalations. It often takes a spirit that’s been trapped within a bottle several minutes to adjust to its new environment. Then, at the ten-minute mark, I take parting whiffs just in case I missed anything in the first two nosing passes. In all, I spend from five to fifteen minutes total smelling each spirit. In some instances, I will return to the smelling phase after the tasting phase to double-check an observation or to erase a doubt.

I think of aromatic profile, as I do my gustatory, or flavor, profile, in the following foundational categories:

Bakery Shop Associated
 Yeasty, bread dough, biscuity, cookie dough, pizza dough, cake batter, cake frosting, gingerbread, pretzel dough, honey, mincemeat, refined sugar, brown sugar, almond paste, nougat, praline, treacle, carob, flaky pastry, meringue, white flour, whole wheat, whole grain, French baguette, salt/saline, prune Danish, bear claw pastry, sourdough

Baking Spices/Herb Associated
Vanilla extract/bean, cinnamon, clove, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, mace

Beans/Legumes Associated
Cola nut, coffee bean, cocoa/cacao, chickpea, split pea, lentil, soy, kidney, pinto, tofu, cubeb, carob, chicory, sorghum, lima

Bitter Associated
Soy sauce, hoisin, vinegar

Candy/Candy Shop Associated
Refined sugar, brown sugar, honey, caramel, toffee, saltwater taffy, marshmallow, hard candy, cake frosting, molasses, apple butter, candy bar, marzipan, fudge, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, espresso, latte, malted milk ball

Cooking Spice/Seed/Herb Associated
Black pepper, sage, thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, coriander, paprika, ginger, chive, cumin, turmeric, sea salt, marjoram, dill, aniseed, saffron, bay laurel, cardamom, savory, cilantro, angelica, cubeb, cayenne, mint, fennel, lemongrass

Dairy Associated
Milk, yogurt, salted/unsalted butter, buttermilk, egg yolk, egg white, hard/dry cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), soft cheese (Brie, Limberger, Gouda), milk shake, malted milk, rotten egg, meringue, hard-boiled egg

Floral/Flower/Plant Associated
Violet, rose, jasmine, honeysuckle, orange blossom, lavender, lemon blossom, geranium, dried, fresh, vines/brambles/leaves, morning glory, marigold, hydrangea, hops, elderflower, damp leaves, tomato vines, verbena, gentian, prickly pear

Fruit/Wine Associated
Orchard—pear, apple, plum/quince, cherry, nectarine, peach, kiwi, pomegranate, lychee, fig, date, avocado
Vine/bramble—grape, all berries (currants included), juniper, prickly pear, tomato, tomato vine, tomatillo, rhubarb, green melon, watermelon, pumpkin
Tropical or subtropical/citrus orchard & fruits—orange, lemon, grapefruit, pineapple, lime, tangerine, guava, banana, papaya, star fruit, mango
Status—Fresh, ripe, dried, pulp, peel-zest, green, baked, over-ripe, marmalade

Grains/Cereal Associated
Wheat, white rice, brown rice, rye, corn/maize, corn starch, polenta, tamale, corn meal/masa, snack cracker, breakfast cereal, graham cracker, malty, malted milk ball, waxy, popcorn, grain husk, kernel

Meat/Fat Associated
Pork, pork rind, BBQ sauce, grilled meats, sausage, bacon, bacon fat, lard, vinegar, baked ham, vegetable cooking oil, olive oil, salted/unsalted butter, brown butter

Mineral/Elemental/Atmospheric Associated
Stony, limestone, chalk/chalky, nickel, lead/lead pencil, salty, flint/flinty, arid desert, rainfall, cement sidewalks, sand/wet sand, barnyard, rubber tire, inner tube, parchment, onionskin, cardboard, wax paper, sealing wax, candle, attic, leather, old books/library, lumberyard, musty, dusty, TCA (trichloroanisole)/corked, damp basement, mold/moldy

Nut Associated
Almond, walnut, hazelnut, pistachio, nut butter/Nutella, peanut, nougat, nut paste, peanut butter, peanut oil, cashew, macadamia

Sea/Weather Associated
Salt air, seaweed, salted fish/kippers, wet sand, rain/fog, dew

Seed Associated
Poppy, sesame, caraway, pumpkin, grains of paradise

Smoke/Burnt/Carbonic Associated
Campfire, wood smoke, burnt tobacco, peat, creosote, ashes, soot, grilled meat, BBQ sauce, s’mores, pipe tobacco, cigar tobacco, carbon, burnt matches/sulphur, toasted marshmallow, burnt toast, charcoal briquette, rotten egg, potash, ammonia

Sweet Associated
Sugar, sugarcane, honey, molasses, sugar beet, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, demerara sugar, powdered sugar, agave syrup, oloroso sherry, port, madeira, corn syrup, maple, maple syrup, mead, caramel, toffee, fudge

Tea Associated
Chamomile, green tea, black tea, orange pekoe, Earl Grey, peppermint, lapsang souchong

Vegetation/Plant/Root Associated
Forest floor/woodsy, mushroom, lichen, mossy, earthy, wet leaves, tobacco leaf, black tea, green tea, bark, peat, maple syrup/tree sap, pine forest, autumn leaves, damp soil, wormwood, eucalyptus, prickly pear, beet, spearmint, lemongrass, sarsaparilla, rose hips, mint, juniper, hyssop, hay, straw, grass, ginger root, licorice, bison grass
Kale, broccoli, asparagus, artichoke, green pepper, chili pepper, cooking oil, palm oil, tomato, tomato paste, tomatillo, green beans, spinach, chive, onion, spring onion, leek, cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, vinegar, green olive, brine, parsnip, sweet potato, potato, cucumber, artichoke, celery, rhubarb

Wine/Vinification Associated
Grapy, grape must, grape skins, grape pulp, stemmy, viny, oloroso sherry, port, madeira, noble rot (botrytis cinerea)

Wood/Tree Associated
 Oak, cedar/pine, resiny, oily, fatty, sawdust, plank, maple/tree sap, plywood, old barn, woodshed, coconut, vanilla, bark, root beer, spruce, sandalwood, madrone, Douglas fir, marula

For your personal purposes, I suggest smelling each spirit in your flight in two stages: immediately following the pour and then at the three-minute mark. If you want to, you can always go back and sniff it again after you’ve smelled the other spirits in your flight. IMPORTANT: First smell spirits in the flight one after the other before moving on to taste. Smelling provides context that tasting could never do.

          Taste: Immediately following the smelling stage of the entire flight, I take a small sip of the first entry and let the liquid rest at the tip of my tongue for a few seconds, then spit it out. Then I take a second sip, which is the vital one since the first sip acts only as palate cleanser. This is the palate entry stage. This initial impression should remind me at least a little of what was occurring in the smell. If I detected odors of, say, fruit for instance, there should be some flavor evidence of orchard (pear, apple, plum, cherry) or vine (grape, strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, currant, raspberry, kiwifruit) or tropical fruit (orange, lemon, banana, pineapple, lime, tangerine, guava). Sometimes taste doesn’t jibe with smell. Smell and taste are usually in harmony (75-80 percent of the time, I reckon), but on occasion show little resemblance. If smell and taste do not mesh, it doesn’t necessarily mean the spirit is out of whack. What you experienced in the nose might even return in the aftertaste, which often occurs. So, when smell and taste aren’t reflective of each other, I suggest that you keep moving forward.

After another minute, I take a larger sip and let that amount rest on the tongue for ten to twenty seconds. This allows the whole of the tongue to be saturated. This midpalate phase makes or breaks the mouth experience. And it’s here where the rating begins to firm up. I spend up to ten minutes tasting several times. You should figure on five minutes max. Some spirits, like cask strength whiskeys, need another round of sniffing and tasting when mineral water is added. A rigid format trains your taste buds to work together with your olfactory cortex, creating one unified impression. The key to becoming a good communicator is to describe what you smell and taste in relatable terms.

          Touch: The feel of a spirit, the textural experience is the final piece of information that I need to render a final decision. Is the spirit oily, thin/watery, syrupy, biting, silky smooth, sharp/raw, aggressive, fiery? Any or all of these attributes can affect the score by as much as one star. Also, how long does the taste last in the throat? Extended length usually means a heavier, fuller spirit and is often highly desirable, unless the taste is horribly wrong and flawed.

          Savor: By “savor” I simply mean to sit back and enjoy—or not—the entire experience of all the senses over a few moments. The key is to ponder the following three questions: Do I like this product? If I do like it, to what degree of enthusiasm do I like it? If I don’t care for it, to what degree do I dislike it?

For you as an at-home taster, this entire process requires no more than five to seven minutes per spirit, give or take two minutes. One needn’t be a biochemist, a Master Sommelier, or a MENSA candidate to derive maximum pleasure. Success in spirits analysis requires, above all:

Repetition of a regimen that’s comfortable for you

Strict adherence to that format

Recall (creating your mind’s accessible collection of deep impressions)

Conducive, well-lighted, calm environment (a vital, if overlooked aspect)

Clean, category appropriate glassware

Keen, penetrating, steady observation

 Summation: Making Sense of It All

Practicing your tasting with friends is highly suggested because it is always more valuable to be exposed to varying viewpoints in your tasting journey. Oftentimes, someone next to me will cite an attribute that maybe I couldn’t clearly identify and when they mention it (“Hey, that’s like cumin!”), it suddenly clicks into place and makes sense. Tasting alone is tedious; take it from me.

Tasting on a regular basis helps to build the sensory collection of key impressions that is absolutely necessary for successful critical analysis. If I have learned anything over three decades of tasting experience, it is that without a rich storehouse of reference data, accurate and reliable analysis simply won’t happen, no matter how talented the taster in terms of technique. When you rate a spirit four or five stars, go back to it and pick out the three or four characteristics that make it so delightful (floral, fruity, sweet, ripe, stony, honeyed, you get the idea), then dog-ear those benchmark attributes and file them away for future use. Every little bit of information will eventually create a master plan for you that will work because you’ll have made it your own process. Greater technical application brings deeper enjoyment and appreciation.