Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.

Cocktail 101: How to Conduct a Spirits Tasting

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

One of the best ways to learn about spirits is to taste, taste, taste. When you taste a flight of bourbons, for example, you have the chance to pit the spirits against each other, and learn more about the bourbon category by exploring the differences between individual bottlings.

But there's no need to trek to Kentucky when you can host a tasting in your own home. Conducting a spirits tasting for your friends is a great excuse to have people over and have a good time. And it doesn't need to break the bank! You can invite your friends to each contribute a bottle to the tasting.

Spirits tastings can be led in different directions, depending on what you're after. You can lead a blind tasting, in which no one but the-one-who-pours knows what's in each glass. Or you can be less formal and tell your guests in advance what they're drinking.

A blind tasting forces you to put your biases aside and evaluate the spirit based solely on what's in the glass, and not on the bottle, name, or fancy label. But even when you know what you're drinking, you can still learn a lot about spirits by tasting.

How to Begin

First decide what you're tasting: bourbon, scotch, tequila, rum, gin, whatever.

Then think, horizontal or vertical? No, that's not the position you'll end up in after the tasting. A horizontal tasting flight compares spirits that are very similar in character but from different distilleries. You want to taste 12-year-old Highland scotches? Line up one scotch each from Dalmore, Glenmorangie, and Clynelish, and have at it.

A vertical tasting flight compares spirits of different ages, all from the same distillery—so, for example, you might taste Dalmore 12, Dalmore 15, and Dalmore 18.

There are other options, of course. You could do a general tasting—a free-for-all in which you just pit different bourbons against each other, or even bourbon versus scotch versus rye, with no regard for age or distillery.

Some distilleries age their products in different cask types. Glenmorangie, for example, offers scotches aged in sherry casks, port casks, and Sauternes casks. Each cask imparts a different flavor to the finish of the scotch, so tasting those opposite each other can be fun and instructive.

Or, finally, you can do an absolute beginners tasting, where you pit a scotch against a brandy against a rum, to give novices an introduction to the differences between entire categories of spirits. It's up to you.

What You'll Need

  • Spirit: Enough for 1-1/2 ounces of each spirit, per taster. A typical 750ml bottle of spirit contains the equivalent of about 25 ounces, or 16 tasting servings.
  • Water: For cleansing the palate between tastes. Choose the most neutral-tasting water you can, preferably spring water, not tap or mineral water. Because the water is meant to be a palate cleanser, you don't want a chlorine or mineral taste to distract from the spirits.
  • Glassware: Preferably stemmed glasses with a tulip shape, to capture the aroma and direct it to the nose. If you don't want people to consider a spirit's color, you might use black glassware; if you want the color to be part of the discussion, use the standard clear variety.
  • Measuring cup: For measuring the spirits into glasses.

What You Might Want to Have Handy

  • Tasting place mats or sheets: These help tasters keep track of what they're sampling, and also provides a convenient place for note-taking. Having a circle on the place mat for each glass tasted helps prevent tasters from inadvertently swapping one sample for another.
  • Pens: Enough said.
  • Eyedropper: For adding water to a spirit to diminish the effect the alcohol itself has on the flavor.
  • Crackers: For cleansing the palate between tastes. Choose something relatively neutral.
  • Spit bucket: For tasters who don't want to swallow. One plastic cup per person works fine.

What You'll Do

As the host, it's your responsibility (if you're conducting a blind tasting) to pour the first tasting flight. (If you're doing subsequent flights and someone else wants to take over the pouring, that's fine.) Send your guests into another room and pour 1-1/2 ounces of each spirit into a glass.

Be sure to devise a system by which you can remember, later, which bottle goes with which glass. If the glasses are numbered from 1 to 3 (or 5 or whatever), left to right, you might hang numbered tags on the neck of each bottle before stashing them out of your guests' sight.

As you're leading the tasting, you have a couple of options. You can let the guests taste in silence, making notes for each spirit as they go along, and then talk about the flight in toto after the tasting. Or you can discuss each individual spirit as you're tasting it.

If you, as the host, want to join in the tasting fun, feel free to do so, but if it's a blind tasting, be careful not to tip your hand as to what's in the glasses.

What Tasters Should Pay Attention To

  • Clarity: If you're using clear glassware, have the tasters hold the glass up to the light. Is the spirit clear? Even brown spirits will allow light through. A hazy or cloudy spirit is often the mark of poor distillation techniques.
  • Color: There's no right answer when it comes to the color of a spirit, except that white spirits should be white and brown spirits should be brown. But, for example, different bourbons can legitimately be different shades of brown. Color differences depend on too many factors to explore here, but make note of any color differences from one spirit to the next.
  • Aroma: Pick up the glass, swirl the spirit around, get your nose into the glass, and sniff. Take short, fast sniffs like a dog does; or take a deep whiff. Take several sniffs. Sniffing methods vary depending on which expert you talk to, but the important idea to remember is that your nose and tongue work closely to impart flavor to the brain. So start getting a schnozz full of aroma even before you sip.
  • Flavor: Take a sip and let it rest in your mouth. Swish it around and hold it. Let it coat your tongue and taste buds. Most quality spirits—whether gin, rum, tequila, bourbon, Scotch, or whatever—have a heck of a lot going on, flavorwise. Let it linger. Take another sip or two if you want. Don't rush, this is the fun part.
  • Finish: After you swallow (or spit), stop. Don't immediately reach for a cracker or water glass. The spirit will continue to play out in your mouth for a few seconds. How long it lasts determines its finish. A longer finish doesn't necessarily entail a better product, but it often does, so it's worthwhile to take notes.

Have you ever attended a spirits tasting? Got any more tips for hosting one?

About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and palate cleanser. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.

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