A few days ago, I was hosting a spirits tasting for some young wine merchants. Absorbed in my routine, I started the tasting of the first sample after some quick observations. My group followed suit, except for one young woman, who called out to me, “Hugo, this is silly, but how do you taste spirits?” After a brief glance around, I realize that her remark is unanimous, and that for the time being, I’m the one who looks stupid…
This anecdote gave me the desire to make a point about the approach to tasting spirits. Nothing pretentious, a simple and logical path, fruit of my humble experience as an amateur and educator.
Start in good conditions
Tasting is to evaluate and appreciate. To do so, the conditions and the environment must be favorable. A white light is preferable, and olfactory neutrality is a must. In an ideal world, no tobacco, no coffee, but let’s be indulgent, we rarely negotiate with this kind of addiction.
I always check the glassware, just in case there is a smell of cardboard or detergent left.
For spirits, the so-called “flared tulip” glasses are the most appropriate. Their particular shape concentrates the aromas, and partially neutralizes the volatile effects of alcohol. For my part, I find that the INAO glass offers honorable performances, it has the advantage of being easy to access and inexpensive. The design of glasses has improved in the last few years, but I am wary of glasses that are too technical (especially in wine…) which can make a product look attractive when in reality it is not so attractive.
Under these conditions, the tasting can begin. It takes place in four stages:
This approach is the animal mechanics, that of our primitive brain. In the days when “tasting” could be fatal, observation and olfaction were essential!
Contrary to wine, it is difficult to trust the color of a spirit because in the vast majority of appellations the addition of coloring (food caramel) is authorized. However, in the case of a tasting where the colors have not been modified, enjoy the moving spectacle of these young brandies as clear as a sunbeam, and of these venerable spirits with mahogany reflections which, for some, have seen two wars pass by…
I have already been asked about the observation of tears appearing on the glass to judge the alcohol or its sugar content, for my part I prefer to rely on my palate, a tool much more adapted for this kind of exercise.
A spirit is defined by its high alcoholic volume, its approach requires some precautions. It is better to approach it from a distance, in order to define its olfactory intensity, and to prevent an emanation that could numb the nose.
For the great majority of alcohols, dilution with water allows a better understanding: the alcoholic burn decreases, the aromatic chains relax and allow to observe certain details. The same sample poured into two glasses, one diluted and the other undiluted, allows for an instructive comparison exercise. The cut is sometimes done by half, or more often on a third of water for two thirds of alcohol. It is better to use spring water for this step, because unlike mineral water, it has no influence on the mixture. The double sample configuration has the advantage of providing an equivalent tasting experience for the palate, otherwise, with a simple diluted sample, one is unable to properly evaluate the taste profile.
From experience, I would say that the dilution process is essential to the evaluation of a whisky, especially if it is bottled at cask strength. It is also necessary for the evaluation of a gin, because it will allow you to gauge its dilution potential, and therefore its mixology. Its use becomes in my opinion questionable on some rums, as well as on brandies, Cognac in particular, where the harmony orchestrated by the master blender greatly facilitates our work.
Enjoy the fragrance of your spirit, write down what comes to your mind, keeping in mind that a tasting note must be accessible, so avoid too personal references. Finally, beware of confusion of the senses: a nose cannot be “sweet” or “sour”, it only makes us think of something sweet or sour, the question is “why?”, and that’s the beginning of the investigation…
To taste is in fact to appeal to 3 of our 5 senses, taste, touch and smell.
Taste is the evidence of the five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Touch is the appreciation of textures in the mouth, silky or rough? thin or thick? … Finally, the olfactory feedback that occurs via the channel connecting the mouth to the nose, which is called feedback.
There is a mapping of the tongue where we place on the tip of it the sensors intended for the sweet sensation, then on the lateral parts follow the salty and the acid, finally the bitterness on the bottom and the mysterious umami on a central area. This concept is controversial, and the latest neuroscientific studies tend to prove that the tongue is likely to capture all types of flavors in various places.
The Umami ? This fifth flavor, originated in Asian cuisine, but has been present in our culture for a long time. An enveloping sensation, which acts as a taste enhancer. It is usually associated with monosodium glutamate. This flavor is found in most of the sailing wines, mutated or not, and in many spirits: rum “grand aroma”, mezcal, aged brandies (rancio)…
A quality spirit must be balanced like a good dish or a good cocktail. The couple acidity and bitterness constitutes the freshness, while the sugar and the alcoholic volume constitute the warm polarity. The perception of salinity and umami acts only as an enhancer. The texture should enhance the aromatic profile, and the retro-olfaction should be in line with the nose, ideally complementing it.
In the mouth, the diluted sample can be treated like a wine, it can be aerated and stirred. On the other hand, for the pure sample, the stirring must be brief in order to avoid the palate being assaulted.
I often propose to my students the exercise of the blocked nose. It consists in keeping the spirit in the mouth by blocking the nostrils, in order to concentrate on the flavors, then to release them, and to let the sense of smell operate, the discoveries are sometimes surprising.
The ultimate information given by the palate is the length of time it remains in the mouth, which is called “length”. For a spirit as for a wine, this characteristic is crucial. The quality of the latter is judged on two axes: time and complexity. A spirit will be considered as weak, if this length is complex but too short or if the length is prolonged but remains monochrome, finally it is ideal if it is prolonged and gains in complexity.
The time has come to decide on this spirit. Is the aromatic profile on the nose consistent with the palate? Or do the nose and the palate complement each other and finally balance each other out? Some contrasts between the olfactory and the gustatory profile may be surprising or disappointing…
The length of a spirit must be given particular attention, one must judge how the alcohol leaves room for the aromas, and how they develop.
Generally, I ask my students to propose a price for the product to be tasted. This exercise allows to place the cursor of the value of a product, and forces to seek objectivity in the judgment.
Finally, one must not neglect the pleasure. Why taste? When you act in a professional context, the matter is understood: to judge the quality of the product, its coherence in relation to its appellation, its price logic. But when you are an amateur? The pleasure?
Another part of my work consists in looking for the ideal perfume for my clients, sometimes the one of the moment, sometimes the one of a lifetime. Taste and smell are eminently primitive senses, they take us back to a time of survival and territory. A familiar smell means security, a comfort zone, while a new smell means a space to discover, or worse: a danger. What is certain is that this exercise, if done with sincerity, teaches us a lot about ourselves, because what we like or dislike constitutes our identity. To learn to taste, to taste, is in my opinion to advance a little further on the path of self-knowledge.
Written by Hugo PLAULT