Lesson Seven: Tasting Spirits and Cocktails

We want you to believe in your own palate; indeed, we may be more confident in your tasting ability than you are. We’re not delusional (not in that way), but you’ve been tasting your entire life and you know what tastes good to you. If you think you’re not so good at tasting cocktails or spirits, maybe it’s because you’ve been listening to the wrong people.  Read on.

Tasting Spirits and Cocktails

Lots of people insist that they can’t tell one gin from another, and wouldn’t know Islay from Rye. That’s a pile of poo. Maybe you can’t describe the difference of one from another, but if we put a glass of each in front of you and asked you to smell them, you would notice differences. Describing those differences is the hard part; spirits (and wine and beer and tea and coffee) reviewers spend a lifetime trying to figure out which words are best capable of limning those differences. As you can imagine, it’s very, very personal.

Quality is fairly well personal too. But not completely. Vodkas are all reputed to be the same; moreover as we noted before, the U.S. government will tell you that vodka is aromaless and flavorless. But it ain’t. Some vodkas are made from potatoes and some from wheat; if you really concentrate, you’ll find flavors that result from those base ingredients. Sometimes those base ingredients are moldy or rotten and since distillation involves concentration of flavors, those spirits are concentrated poo.  Sometimes sloppy spirits producers will fail to cut out heads and tails (see Lesson Three – Distillation if you’ve forgotten these fundamentals) and those spirits taste hot and can make your eyes water and your nose hairs dance the minuet. You don’t want your nose hairs dancing the minuet; crying’s for babies. Some vodkas (and other spirits) have sugar or glycerine added to them to make them smoother – maybe they weren’t very smooth to begin with, maybe the producer had something to hide. Even more obviously, if someone has added a lot of sugar to their vodka, they often toss in a bit of citric acid so the sugar isn’t so glaring. Frankenspirit is what we call that. If you’re wondering if your vodka is one of those lumbering zombies, mix up a White Russian. As soon as you dump in the cream, the citric acid in the vodka will start curdling the cream and you’ll get something that looks like brains. It’s alive!!

But some drinks are yum because they’re sweet; liqueurs come to mind, and some categories like aged rum might utilize a bit of sugar to make them a wee bit tastier. We’re not saying those rum producers aren’t cutting corners, cuz they are, but it’s not necessarily a terrible thing if the rum tastes good anyway. While we BARmen believe that we’re supposed to be promoting quality spirits over shortcuts, like everybody else, we’re grateful for a good drink and you shouldn’t take this high quality thing so far that you stop being able to enjoy a fun shot or an ice cold yard beer.

Words Worth Your Taste

In tasting, hedonism comes first: Do you like it? After that, things get complicated. But let’s assume that you want to be able to explain WHY you like something, and that you have the ambition of actually being a knowledgeable drinker, if not a Certified Drinks Expert (shameless plug for our program here). Well, then you need words to describe what you’re tasting. And you need to know what words are typically applied to each of the classic spirits.

Vodka is smooth; that much is agreed. But some vodkas are oily, textured and viscous – you may or may not like that. Some are racy and some are soft; one bartender might call that boring, another might say that’s charming. But if the Vodka is peppery and hot, that’s not really the point of vodka, is it? Still, differing ingredients have their own little distinct notes: Wheat based vodkas are expected to have some citrus components; potato based vodkas often show themselves with a note of cherry or fig – don’t ask us why, we’re just telling you what we’ve tasted. Grape based vodkas, not unexpectedly, have some fruitiness to them, corn based vodkas will often have a similar note. Rye based vodkas might betray a slight note of pepper, but it’s intriguing and along with vibrant citrus, it can be really bracing.

Russian vodkas often have some pepperiness to them (without the heat); Scandinavian vodkas show a lot of yeastiness (it’s grain and yeast, after all). These are rough generalizations, mind you, but it’s fair place to start.

Gin is unsurprisingly dependent upon its botanical recipe far more than upon its base ingredients (Lesson Four  – White Spirits for botanicals but, jeez, have you forgotten everything we’ve taught you?). Some are heavy on the juniper; some are heavier on the coriander – these two ingredients tend to make up the lion’s share of the recipe. Juniper is all about pine and lemon notes; coriander is more herbaceous though it has its own citrus aromas too. Citrus notes might come from the use of peels; surprisingly, it might derive only from the other ingredients. You’ll often find floral elements like roses, or herbal elements like cucumber and botanicals such as lavender seem to offer both herbs and flowers at the same time.  Any of these are fair game when you’re trying to describe gin.

As you have already learned, Rum is made from molasses, or less often, from the sweet sap of the sugar cane plant. You’re going to smell something sweet: often a note of banana, dried pineapple or even marshmallow are noticeable, along with the usual confectionary barrel notes of caramel, butterscotch or honey. But the fascinating part of this is that though rum smells distinctly sweet, it is most often dry. Remember that while flavor, aroma and texture migrate across the still in the spirit, sugar does not.

That’s not to say that a lot of rums aren’t sweet, because it’s a fairly common practice to add some sugar (and sometimes other flavorings) to rums, particularly those priced at the, er, economically friendly range. It’s been this way for centuries; no great harm is done. But as you can imagine, any cocktailian looking to make a balanced and tasty drink will need to know whether the rum portion of the drink is fragrant and dry, or sweet and a bit sticky.

Rum’s variance extends beyond sweetness. White rums can be very neutral (like the dominant brand) or funky and herbal (like Rhum Agricole can be) or floral and herbal (as cachaca often is) or caramelly and figgy, as with some of the older aged rums from the islands. Throughout, give some consideration to whether the rum is smooth from great distillation and aging, or merely soft from the addition of sugar.

We’ve already given you a sense of how barrels and barrel aging adds sweet aromas to spirits: caramel, butterscotch, maple, honey, these are all common smells. Here again, you will often smell sweet, but find that the spirit is actually dry.

Tequila, like rum, comes in a myriad of styles and ages; for purists like us BARfellers, blanco is the stuff because it’s uncluttered by barrel aromas. Agave spirit, even unaged, has a remarkably complex set of aromas and flavors but many of those seem crushed under the weight of all that wood in some of the popular Anejo and Extra Anejo styles. On the other hand, the very best among them manages to find a balance point where the basso profundo of barrel character doesn’t drown out the lilting chorus of agave’s herb, vegetable and mineral notes. For those of us who worship at the altar of agave, mankind’s contribution to this spirit, the barrel, is too often lauded over the Earth Mother that is Mezcal. Oops, kinda tipped our hand on that one, didn’t we? Well, whether you are talking about Mezcal or Tequila (or Sotol or whatever), agave’s best flavors are almost shockingly fragile; barrels may not help. For blanco styles, we expect Tequila to be clean, assertive and if from the highest elevations, intensely citrusy. Some have also talked about the mineral notes of the Highlands Tequilas: glue, wet cement; notes that may not sound so great on paper can be pretty special in the glass. Meanwhile, Mezcal is typically smoky because it is usually baked in stone pits that are filled with vegetation such as maguey or agave pincas (leaves or fronds) ; putting green things in the baking pit makes for lots of vegetative smoke. Tequila is baked or steamed without those elements so has instead just the pungent vegetable note of the agave heart itself. The Agave chapter taught you a lot about these flavors so no need to go on, except to say that even in aged versions, Mezcals and Tequilas ought to have that tangy, vegetative, minerally note that helps define the category. We think that the best ones do that in spades.

We’ve already given you ideas how to taste great brandies in Lesson Five. Cognac and Armagnac derive lots of fruit notes from their raw ingredients, and lots of character from long aging in barrels in damp cellars. Those cellars impart certain characteristics (mushroom, antique store, old furniture); the flavors of the grapes quickly become subsumed in the wash of aromas. Calvados probably hangs on to its identity a bit longer: those apples are quite noticeable until Calvados has slumbered longer in the cellar.

Whiskey and whisky can be even more complex, if often less elegant and more bombastic. The raw ingredients of Bourbon (say, corn) announce themselves; the aging location of an Islay whisky can be even more distinctive – the salty, briny, smoky note is evidence of aging proximitious to the sea. But common is the Scotch distiller who increases the smoky content of his barley malt to ape that marine note, and then packs the barrels off to the mainland for aging.  Now you “sea” it, now you don’t.

Creating A System For Yourself

All of these quick snapshots might seem too much, or too random. A lot of this has got to come from you; you may not smell the vegetative note of Tequila (or at least haven’t recognized it as that before), or don’t understand what the hell we’re talking about when we say old Cognac smells like old furniture. We feel your pain.

But we’ve found these smells and aromas over years of tasting; don’t worry too much about our smells (we keep telling our wives this) and start worrying about your own. That didn’t come out right. What we mean is: develop your own set of smells and descriptors for each spirit. Everyone’s palate and nose is different and some things you will find yourself very sensitive to, and some things you won’t notice when they’re barking in your face and gnawing on your leg. We’re all different.

But we think that anyone is capable of being a good, efficient taster if you focus upon the task often, and if you take notes. Indeed, you will also need a system. So here’s what we recommend: just as with wine, you will look at it, smell it, taste it and then consider the finish, what happens after you’ve tasted some and spit it out. Okay, that last part is optional, but if you want to be able to read your notes later, it’s recommended that you spit when you’re assessing a spirit.

You’ve Got The Look

When you look at a spirit, try to consider how rich that spirit might be: some spirits are thick and seem to hang on the edge of the glass, some race down the sides of the glass when you swirl it. That thickness might represent richness; it might just represent sugar someone has put in the spirit. It’s up to you to decide that when you taste it.

If this portion of the tasting seems weird, pour three vodkas into three identical glasses. You can see a slight difference in color (some seem pewter, some seem silver, some just seem clear) and you may even notice a difference in the way they roll around the glass.

Smells Bells

In wine, the greatest majority of the work is done by smelling the wine; tasting is most often simple confirmation of the aromas. Spirit is different than that; you need to know if it’s sweet or not, if it’s rich or not, if it’s been well distilled or if it’s hot and peppery. Still, smelling has probably half or more of the information you’re seeking. As you smell spirits, think of these categories: fruits, flowers, spices, herbs, vegetables, and mineral/earth, and as you move into darker spirits, you may find yourself thinking of confectionary things like caramel, butterscotch, molasses, honey, and as you learned when you read about barrels and time in barrels, nuts. Pecans, almonds, walnuts, any of those may show up in spirits, especially aged ones.

Now there are lots and lots of other smells to consider: rum agricole can have a smell that is almost human, like sweat; Mezcal often has distinct burnt notes (check Lesson Four notes if you don’t know why) and if Bourbon sometimes smells like canned corn and that confuses you, you really are in need of a whiskey section review. But don’t let our list limit your imagination when you’re trying to think of the right words. Just don’t expect anyone to want to taste a spirit you’re pouring if you tell them it smells like a new Ford Fiesta interior with kitty litter undertones.

Mouth To Mouth Resuscitation

You’ll want to take two tastes; one to clear the palate and one to actually taste the spirit. Roll it around your mouth, chew it a bit, see what it really feels like. Then spit it out and think about each of the categories we talked about before: fruits, flowers, spices, herbs, vegetables, minerals, earth, confectionary elements and nuts.

Think about weight and whether the spirit hurts. Does it burn the sides of the cheeks or is it just your tongue that’s hot? That hot tongue only reflects spiciness in the spirit. When your checks are glowing, or your nose hairs are frying; that’s rough distillation.

But every spirit deserves one more chance. After you’ve tasted and considered the flavors you’ve tasted, breath in, one long gentle breath. A good, well made spirit will actually cool off as you draw air in through the mouth; you’ll notice peppermint or menthol and a sort of ice cold minty sensation. Poor distillation seems only to heat up when you add air to it.

Glassware and Methodology

There are some pretty cool glasses out there, but we tend to use small glasses, some of which look like miniature wine glasses. If you want to shop around and try different shapes and sizes, let us know what you find. But those big balloon glasses that we all grew up thinking were ideal for Cognac and whisky are too big to use; the smells often get lost and muddied inside their voluminous mass. Small is better for tasting and assessing.

There’s no question that some people like to cut their spirits with water before they assess them. We don’t because we worked in bars and didn’t have time to sit around with graduated cylinders and measure little thimbles of water when your co-worker just wanted to know which glass has the rum and which glass has the vodka. So we taste our spirits straight out of the bottle because that’s the way they were sold to us. Go figure.

In some ways, we taste just as if we were tasting anything: wine, beer, soda. We smell it, sip it and think about it. We use a clean, narrow glass and we pour the glass about one quarter full so we can have plenty of room to let the aromatics develop. But remember too that you are trying to smell and taste something that is often high in alcoholic strength. There is no need to swirl a spirit, as you do with a glass of wine; it serves only to volatilize the alcohol. Merely rolling the spirit in the glass can provide enough aromatics to get what you want for descriptors.


Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Pendergast.

In mixing glass;
1.5 oz of Bourbon
3/4 oz Sweet Vermouth
1.5 oz Benedictine
2-3 Dashes of Agnostura Bitters
Add ice and stir thoroughly
Strain into old fashioned glass
Garnish with lemon zest

Now you’re good to move on to Lesson Eight.