So much of enjoying beer, wine, or liquor is discovering your own palate—and then training and improving that palate. It should be a pleasurable journey of discovery and not intimidating or snooty.
If you hone your basic tasting abilities, you’ll eventually know when a product exhibits quality even if you do not like it. And getting beyond personal preference helps define and improve your tasting skills, qualifying you to have knowledgeable opinions.
A great exercise—and a good way to learn more about your own likes and dislikes—is to practice evaluating spirits at home. It’s the same as drinking, but with a little more purpose. In trendy parlance, let’s call it mindful boozing.
I recently judged for the American Craft Spirits Association in Louisville, KY, a massive palate testing and training exercise, and there are many aspects of the experience that easily carryover into the home bar.
Here are some steps for evaluating spirits that will help jumpstart your drinking awareness.
To set up, take any three or four bottles from your shelf and pour an ounce of each into glasses. Tulip-shaped tasting glasses are best, cognac glasses are also good, but whatever you have will do. The bottles can be anything you have on hand, although if you have three different bottles in the same category—say, three whiskeys or three gins, tasting them directly side-by-side will teach you the most. An expanded version of this exercise is to invite over a friend who also has three bottles, and judge six against each other. If you want to be competitive, bag the bottles, number them, and conduct the tasting blind.
Put a pitcher of still, filtered water near you. Have a pen and a white sheet of paper at the ready—you will take notes.
While you evaluate, think about awarding medals. This is silly since you already own all three, but the trial will sharpen your overall awareness. At the end, you must rank them. Forget points, and instead think about medals like this:
Gold is a bottle I would keep and covet in my own bar
Silver is a bottle I would give as a gift to a friend
Bronze is a bottle I would buy off the shelf
To call this whole process a ‘tasting’ is really inaccurate since a huge part of the exercise is to check color and nose—to conduct an overall sensory evaluation. Hold up a piece of white paper behind the first glass and jot down what the liquid looks like. It can be clear/colorless, or it can be an ambrosial burnt umber reminiscent of Bob Ross’s best lonely farmhouse bathed in autumnal sunlight. Whatever it is, it tells you a lot about what you’re about to sip.
Next, the nose. If you’re sniffing a pour of gin, note its aromas and jot them down. Is it floral? Does juniper pop out? If it does, you might be dealing with a London Dry style. If it’s malty, you may have a Genever. If you’re nosing a whiskey, give it a deep whiff with your mouth open. Inhale through both mouth and nose simultaneously. If you’re not getting much aroma because your glass is too deep, try covering it with a small plate, leaving it for a few seconds, removing the plate, and then smelling again. Whatever you do, try your hardest to get a sense of what is in the glass, and jot down whether it is pleasant and welcoming or if it’s flat or off-putting.
Be guided by your nose. It will set the expectations for what you are about to sip.
Do not add water before your first taste. Give the liquid a sip and swish it around in your mouth—suck a little air into your mouth and sort of chew on the liquid. Yup, awkward. But try it anyway. If you’re sipping whiskey, or say, mezcal, this first sip is going to snap your taste buds to attention and really whack them over the head. You may not taste much because your mouth is overwhelmed. Wait 45 seconds, and then take another sip. This time, your palate is more receptive and you can taste with more depth. The spirit will seem softer, and not as much of a shock to your tongue. Wild, right? The two sips 45 seconds apart are really different.
Take into account the liquid’s viscosity–whether it is oily, whether it’s big and thick (which tells you about its proof), and then jot down the flavors you can decipher. There’s no right answer here, although some people get quite adept at identifying notes like ‘saddle leather’ and ‘tire fire,’ or vegetal notes like spinach and watercress. If you find yourself at a competition, fellow judges will share their wackiest flavor descriptors (unrecorded, it’s just a humorous diversion) as a bit of sport. “Rancid caper,” came up at ACSA, as well as the more abstract– but nevertheless highly descriptive –‘abandoned hope.’ Not good smells. Luckily, those off-flavors are the rare exceptions.
Next, add a bit of water. A good rule of thumb is somewhere between 20-30%. In your remaining tasting liquid, that’s just a few drops or less than a half a teaspoon. By lowering the ABV, especially with higher-proof liquors, more flavor notes will appear. What your tongue first perceived as merely hot and burning will now be mellowed enough to pick out a host of swirling nuances. Write the flavors down. Look for depth. Look for complexity. Note the finish—is it long or short? Are there any surprises between the aroma and the taste?
Whew, this was hard work. Now rank your bottles. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bourbon, a gin, and a tequila—rank the bottles anyway. It’s important to hone your evaluative skills and decide—if you had to—which one of these you’d take to a desert island over which others and why. If you’re doing this exercise with a friend, argue it out until you agree (or agree to disagree) on the ranking of the six bottles.
Now you know more about the spirits in your bottles and about you than ever before–but you’re not done. Over the next few days, try the spirits in a few classic cocktails. Get to know how each spirit plays with others. Does one like sweet vermouth? Does another like an herbaceous kick of Chartreuse? If you have two bourbons, make a mini-Manhattan with each and decide which you like better. Playing with the spirits in conjunction with other ingredients will reveal even more than the tasting, and exponentially increase your awareness of your own palate and what’s in your glass.