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How to taste spirits – Ask Decanter

Practical tips on assessing the aromas and flavours of spirits including gin, vodka, whisky and Cognac.

Readers of Decanter will be familiar with tasting techniques for evaluating wines, but there are some key differences when it comes to tasting spirits such as gin, vodka, whisk(e)y, rum, tequila and Cognac. The comparatively higher alcohol content (abv) of spirits means that you can’t simply swirl, sniff and spit as you would do with a wine.

These high-strength spirits benefit from being diluted with water while you’re tasting: use one part water to four parts spirit. This is especially true if you’re tasting a product that’s marked ‘export strength’, ‘cask strength’ or navy strength’ – all of which have an even higher abv.

However you should nose and taste the spirit neat initially, using the guidelines below, before diluting it.

Best glassware for tasting spirits

Choose a stemmed tasting glass, rather than a spirits tumbler or a shot glass. The same ISO (International Standards Organisation) glasses that are recommended for wine tasting will work for spirits. These tulip-shaped glasses help to concentrate aromas and will hold a 25ml-50ml measure for tasting.

Do check that your glass is thoroughly clean before tasting. Smell the empty glass, as detergents and rinse aids can leave behind a strong smell, even though the glass looks clean.

Where to taste spirits

Choose a room with good natural daylight; ideally somewhere quiet so that you can concentrate. Just as you don’t want any contamination in your glass, try to avoid external aromas such as cooking smells, coffee, fresh paint or flowers.

Don’t wear perfume or aftershave – and avoid washing with your hands with scented soap before you taste.

Aroma

Sample your spirit at room temperature, as chilling dulls the aromas. Smell the neat spirit initially, but avoid inhaling deeply – the higher alcohol content will burn your nostrils. Instead hold the glass slightly away from your nose and inhale gently.

Then taste the neat spirit (see below) and make a note of any initial aromas and flavours that you notice. When you have nosed and tasted your spirit neat, you can dilute it with water (see above). This will open up more aromas and flavours.

Taste

Sip only a small amount of your neat spirit at first, then spit, to prep your palate. Take a bigger second sip and swirl it around your mouth, keeping it there while you work out the general flavour profiles you can taste.

Then try to be more specific. If the spirit tastes fruity, what kind of fruit is it? Citrus, stone fruit, orchard fruit, berries? If you’ve identified citrus notes: are they lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit? Go through the same process for other flavour profiles such as spicy, floral, vegetal or smoky.

As well as noting the flavours, think about texture: is the spirit heavy and velvety in your mouth or is it light?

You can now add water (see above) to open up the palate and allow a greater range of flavours and more subtle notes to appear. After your final spit, think about the aftertaste of the spirit; also known as the finish. Does the taste stay in your mouth and if so what flavours can you notice?


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