Tasting is one of life’s little gifts. To drink is one thing, but to taste? That’s when you really appreciate a spirit. Drinking is a rich experience with much to explore. I’ve been judging spirits awards for four years and can certainly share tips on tasting like a pro. To take you on this journey, Your Drink Box offers 33 Books tasting journals, handy little notebooks to record your tasting notes in a simple, easy manner. It’s a brilliant tool. So, let’s sit down for a lesson. I suggest you digest this with a spirit in hand and taste along with me. Reading or listening to instructions is one thing, but this is a time where the real learning comes from doing.
Arguably the experience starts with your first visual impression. This depends on what you’re tasting, of course. Colour and appearance is always something to consider. A good spirit has clarity. Most spirits are simply clear, but you can look for depth of colour in others, such as whiskys and rums. And, nowadays, flavoured gins can come in all colours of the rainbow. Contemplate what the look of the spirit is making you think.
This is where you really get into it. Swirl the glass to release some aroma. It’s handy to use a glass that you can get your nose into so something narrow rimmed isn’t the best choice. If you’re sniffing around the edge of the glass you may well miss something.
Take a big inhale and explore the aromas, try and pull them apart to discover different elements. What notes are you getting? Can you recognise them? Are they in an order, do they come together? Consider the ideas it’s giving you. This is what I call the ‘nose’s promise’. The consistency of the drinks ‘concept’ is important. And, it’s always interesting to see how those ideas transfer from one sense to another.
Holding that idea from the nose, take some liquid in your mouth, swirl it around to make sure it reaches each part of the tongue to activate all those taste buds. I find once it’s in the mouth, a little slurp helps.
Some spirits are a “one trick pony” but perform that one trick well. So, if a spirit tastes of just one thing it’s not necessarily bad, just lacking complexity.
A good spirit gives you a journey through different aspects of flavour. Try to pick each out and see how they work together. Do they evoke an idea, a place? Is it balanced? Do the flavours come through in a clunky fashion or is it cohesive?
My favourite spirits take me on a magic carpet ride. I get a wealth of unique sights with a smooth ride. That said, others are like watching a well-organised fireworks display, with flavours popping up here and there, all whilst working beautifully together in harmony.
This is one of the fantastic things about spirits, all the varied experiences they deliver through your senses. Pinpointing flavours can be tricky. It helps to have some dried botanicals on hand to sniff before tasting, a common technique with gin, as this helps you determine which botanicals you might identify through taste and smell.
The finish is what you’re left with, that lingering aftertaste and the last takeaway of the experience. What you have in the bag from the giftshop, so to speak. Some spirits drop off quickly, but a good spirit should have something tasty that stays with you. Even better, when it has complexity, each note moves together and fades in and out. Spirits encompassing this are, what I like to call, “generous” as you get a whole range of experience in every sip.
To Taste Neat or Not?
From my judging experience, I tend to taste all spirits neat to get their base idea. Even a dash of water opens them up, offering a distinct experience compared to neat, and the amount of water added varies per glass; so, in the interest of fairness, I try them all neat first.
However, for home tasting it’s different as you have time to really delve into each spirit. You can focus on one spirit and try it neat, with ice, with a mixer, and in a cocktail. I’d say trying the same spirit in various forms is a great way to understand the flavour and how it works and that’s really the name of the game.
Tasting with Friends
The more you taste, the more you build up an understanding of what you are experiencing and the more you get out of it. Tasting is great fun and brilliant to do with friends. It’s always worth remembering people have different palates. Some people pick up flavours others do not, and that makes for some really interesting talking points.
If it’s tricky to meet in person, try a virtual tasting. Say four of you buy a bottle of something, then send a sample to friends so you each have four unique samples. Set up a night for a video call, and away you go! It’s a lovely way to share an experience despite distance.
Finishing where we started, a great way to learn is taking notes. 33 Books make this super easy with drinks journals. 33 Jiggers of Gin lays out pages with checkboxes based on format (neat, rocks, cocktail), quick notes, and a useful flavour wheel great for a visual reference of each component. Another handy feature is the ‘star rating’, allowing you to easily flick back through to find favourites. In a nutshell, it’s a pocket-sized place for all of your notes to inspire your thinking about what you’re tasting.
I hope this mini-lesson has been helpful and even inspired some of you to get into tasting! If you’ve got any spirits on the shelf at home, sit down and give them a go. It could be the start of an amazing journey. I find it’s a delightful rabbit hole of a hobby!
About our Author: Bernadette Pamplin
After landing a job in a gin bar, Bernadette became obsessed with the spirit and sought extensive training to learn all she could about it. Later, she merged her passion for gin with her passion for writing to become a drinks writer. She now writes articles for publications like Gin Magazine, content for Your Drink Box and her own popular blog Under The Ginfluence. She has also served as Brand Ambassador for a large UK Gin Festival and helps organise the Craft Distilling Expo as well as speaking on panels at it.
Bernadette has built four years experience judging events like Gin of the Year, World Gin Awards, Spirits Business Awards, Gin Guide Awards, IWSC and the American Distilling Institute Judging of Craft Spirits. She loves trying gins, learning to distinguish flavours and how the botanicals and distillation processes lead to the final result. Very much "under the ginfluence," Bernadette is driven by spirit's history, flavour, and story. While gin is her speciality, she has affection for all spirits.
Currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, we are sure you will hear more from this ambitious author. Bernadette encourages you to contact her to learn about gin or collaborate on projects. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.