Tasting and Rating Spirits
The Spirit Journal Guide to Spirits Tasting & Rating Spirits
Tasting distilled spirits formally, either for a review or as part of a consultation, is the hardest job that I do as the proprietor of Spirit Journal, Inc. By spirits, of course, I refer to brandies, liqueurs, whiskeys, gins, tequilas, vodkas or rums, meaning the potables that first undergo the biochemical change of fermentation (yeast cells consuming sugar molecules to create alcohol and CO2) then, second, distillation, which is the boiling, vaporization, and cooling of the fermented liquid to obtain the pure essence, or spirit. Sometimes spirits are aged in wood barrels, which adds another layer of complexity. The amount of concentration required to properly and meticulously identify subtle characteristics in spirits is enormous, at least for me as principal taster.
Analyzing spirits is far more demanding in nature and practice than scrutinizing wine, sake or beer, which are all fermented beverages. This is primarily due to the elevated alcohol by volume levels of the majority of distilled liquids. Fermented libations typically range from as low as three percent alcohol (light beer) up to seventeen to eighteen percent in the case of some very strong ales and wines.
Drinkable liquids that are fermented (making a beer or wine) and then heated, vaporized and cooled in a traditional pot or a more modern column still system create liquids that can range from thirty percent alcohol all the way up to ninety-six percent alcohol (neutral grain spirit or NGS). High alcohol content automatically makes spirits significantly more complex than their fermented cousins. Becoming successful at tasting spirits professionally takes years of work, diligence, and spitting.
That said, consumers too can learn through several sequential steps that, when used properly, will increase their enjoyment of spirits without a great deal of rigor or pain. There is no magic to transforming oneself into even a moderately astute judge of spirits. Much of the process of becoming a better taster involves three fundamental components: one, the common sense utilization of one’s senses, knowing what they do and getting them to work in harmony; two, repetitive tasting practice using a tasting system that works specifically for you; and three, first recognizing and then reeducating your inherent memory abilities and acknowledging how they are tethered to your senses, in particular, the sense of smell.
All that we are talking about is deeper personal appreciation, not fanaticism, snobbism or, worst of all, showboating. Keener appreciation is never about elitism. It is always about heightened personal enjoyment, sharing, and sensible communication.
These techniques are all about you becoming a more perceptive, enthusiastic, and practical taster of beverage alcohol merely by applying some of the time-tested measures that we use as professional tasters.
My own unscripted spirits tasting odyssey
From 1973 to 1982, I worked in various capacities for legendary winemaker Rodney Strong in what was then bucolic Sonoma County, California. After relocating to New York City in 1982 to pursue my writing career, I contributed stories about wine for several publications, worked in beverage retail, and owned and operated a wine school in New York City, where I taught consumers how to enjoy wine. I did not begin professionally tasting spirits until 1989 when I started writing special sections for The New York Times Sunday magazine, a thank-you-God freelance job that lasted seventeen years and led eventually to myriad other writing, consulting and teaching opportunities, including the establishment of F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal in the spring of 1991.
To my supreme benefit, a solid beverage alcohol tasting foundation was laid for me beginning in the 1970s in the sleepy northern California agricultural town of Windsor and continued when I moved to New York. So when the Times came a-calling, my pivot to spirits evaluation and journalism from wine just seemed to be a good fit. And since no one else of note was regularly writing about distilled spirits in America at that time, the field was as open as the plains of eastern Montana.
Since 1989, I’ve perhaps tasted between 38,000 to 40,000 spirits of various ages and developmental stages over the last 25 years.
I cite these matters not as a bragging right because, really, who in their right mind would boast about spending a quarter century sniffing, sipping and spitting out spirits, frequently in freezing-one’s-ass-off cold (think Scottish Highlands in January) or toaster-oven-hot distilleries (stupefying hot Caribbean in June) where your sweat is sweating?
But I bring attention to my personal sojourn of the past 25 years to provide a sense of perspective to this section, for I possess no special gifts for being a good taster. The best professional tasters I know agree that the vast majority of people can develop what might be considered above average tasting skills with alcoholic beverages. Virtually anyone, with the exception of people who suffer from anosmia, or the loss of the ability to smell, can become proficient at tasting and assessing the quality of any and all distilled spirits.
• • Knowing the basic ground rules
1) Proper environment & glassware. One’s evaluation environment should be clean, well lighted, and appropriate to the task at hand. Have a sink nearby with running water obviously. My formal reviews are conducted solely in my office at the Spirit Journal HQ in New York’s Hudson Valley and never outside that space. For your informal purposes choose a cozy sitting room or dining room or kitchen where you and your friends will be comfortable.
Glassware is a key element. Never, ever use plastic cups because plastic imparts unpleasant flavors to delicate beverages. I utilize the same thin crystal glasses for all spirit categories, a combination of stemmed Spanish copitas, small dessert wineglasses, 6-ounce Riedel Vinum Port glasses, and 5-ounce Glencairn whisky glasses that I wash myself by hand without the use of detergent. My tasting glasses are air-dried because sometimes even cotton towels and/or paper towels can leave residue or fibers that can later be mistaken as sediment.
For your purposes at home, just use 6 or 8-ounce white wine glasses, which will handily serve all spirits varieties well.
2) Spitting, numbers, timing, amounts. I believe in spitting ALWAYS in order to avoid even light inebriation and therefore I use opaque plastic beer cups for spittoons. Swallowing samples is ultimately counterproductive to becoming a better taster. One has to remain clear-headed and mentally agile. As a matter of policy, I never sample more than eight spirits in any one session and mostly hold the total to six per morning. Amateurs should heed that advice and, in my opinion, should not overburden anyone’s taste buds or sensibilities. No more than 1 ½ ounces per sample is needed for a thorough evaluation.
I usually taste early in the morning, normally from 8:30 am to noon, which most people blanch at. But I am a card-carrying morning person, so that suits me best. An unadulterated, fresh, morning palate is preferred but is frequently impractical for informal tastings. For most consumers, weekend afternoons or evenings are easier to hold tastings.
Have plenty of water available. I like still water in between tastes, which cleans the palate well. Mild cheeses are recommended for serving with spirits, such as Muenster or Monterey jack. Bread or water crackers (Carr’s or Dare) are also excellent alcohol absorbers. If I begin to experience palate fatigue, meaning the inability to use all my senses, I stop for the day. I also make every attempt to taste products from the same category in one session. Don’t mix, say, two blanco tequilas and four Canadian whiskies. Keep like with like for the purpose of context and focus.
3) Ratings and discussion. What my critiques come down to are these two salient points: Is this product something that stacks up well in relation to the established, contemporary standards of the specific category? And, would I recommend this product to a friend or colleague? Nothing is more important than the second question. All criticism forms, meaning book reviews, movie reviews, car reviews, et cetera, boil down to this query.
I employ a one to five star rating system, with one being the lowest score and five the highest. Here’s what they signify:
One star tells you that that particular product‘s quality is well below the established standard for the category. One-star products are what I often consider to be undrinkable, unbalanced, and obviously are deemed as being Not Recommended. They can smell and taste rancid, attic-like, musty, moldy or unclean. These are very different traits to something like botanical, herbal, vegetal, mossy/earthy or dusty, which actually can all be considered good attributes depending on the category.
Two stars indicate an item that is only average when judged against its peers and is, therefore, Not Recommended. These spirits may be drinkable and without severe failings, but in the end they are uninspiring and lacking any special merit. I would not tell a friend to buy them.
Three stars mean that the character profile of this item is better than average and exceeds what would be considered as the norm for product quality of this category. Three-star products are always Recommended. Plus I would positively advise a friend to hunt them down.
Four stars indicate that these products far exceed what is thought to be average/fair. Four stars point to a product of authentic quality and distinct personality. These high quality items come Highly Recommended. I would, with gusto, counsel my friends to buy these products.
Five stars indicate a watershed, landmark product whose seamless quality is as ideal as an item within that category can get. These are the benchmark products that can be thought of as defining a spirits category due to their harmonious natures in which all the chemical components – alcohol, acids, base materials, wood use, if any – are perfectly integrated through outstanding distillation, maturation, filtration, blending and/or other production techniques. They receive my Highest Recommendation.
I believe that even weekend tasters should use some sort of scoring system (100 point scale is also fine) to render some sort of informal ranking. A rating system also provides a point of debate amongst the tasters and the more debate the better in order to establish the group’s quality standards.
4) Alcohol by volume, or abv, and adding water issues. As part of every review I conduct, the abv is cited for informational purposes. For your purposes, be aware of the abv of every entered spirit so that you can set the order of tasting, lowest abv to highest, youngest spirit to oldest.
Typically when you come across a whiskey, rum or a brandy abv that’s wildly divergent from the standard 40%-43% abv level, such as 59.2%, 63.3% or 49.9%, it nearly always signals a “cask strength” spirit. This means that the spirit was drawn from the barrel or holding tank and bottled without dilution down to a lower range of strength. Make sure that these are last in the line-up. If you place them before spirits with lower abv, they will eclipse the lighter spirits. Also, I urge at-home tasters to add flat (non-effervescent) bottled mineral water to the cask strength spirits in a ratio of ½ ounce of mineral water to every 1½ ounces of spirit. Dilution accomplishes two things: one, it stimulates aroma because water separates the molecules, thereby releasing more aroma, and, two, the reduced strength makes it easier to assess the spirit’s characteristics.
•• The Value & Purpose of an Evaluation Regimen
I normally take 20-30 minutes for every formal product evaluation, which is excessive for at-home tasters who shouldn’t need more than 3-5 minutes for each spirit. That is one reason why I am an admittedly deliberate critic. As stated earlier, my obligation to Spirit Journal readers and to the world’s distillers, many of whom I know, is to supply them with the fairest, most accurate, and thorough sensory data so that consumers can make astute buying and spirits producers can make production decisions in the real world based on my unbiased findings.
Perhaps the biggest factor in becoming a good taster is to formulate and then religiously follow a tasting routine. One’s personal system should never waver once you’ve found one that’s comfortable.
The four-sense system I’ve used, but that likely you should moderate for your own reasons, for the past two decades goes as follows:
Sense of Sight: First, but not the most vital stage, is looking at the spirit under a bright lamp for 10 to 15 seconds. At this point, I’m gauging the color (brown, yellow, red, green, blue and their various shades), the clarity (is it opaque or translucent?), and the overall cleanliness (do I see any sediment and if so, what does it appear to be, fabric, cork, minerals, oils?). Most of all, does it own an appealing appearance? This stage should not consume more than 20 to 30 seconds.
Sense of Smell: Next comes the most pivotal phase of the whole exercise, the one that, for me, makes up the majority of my final score. Smell is our most primitive sense (olfaction); the olfactory bulb is located in the segment of the brain, called the limbic system, that impacts creativity, memory, and emotions; and is the only sense that triggers the eerie feeling of déjà vu. Smell directs and impacts the sense of taste by up to 80 to 90 percent and allows us to identify danger, mates, and food.
Here’s how it all works. While the sense of taste (tongue and taste buds) can only identify five fundamental tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami), most human olfactory bulbs can recognize up to 10,000 odor molecules. Inhaling a spirit draws in hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny odor molecules into the nasal cavity. When they land on our moist receptors, the receptors instantaneously send data to the olfactory bulb, which causes a reaction of “Hey, I recognize that rose petal scent and I like it” or “Whoa, that smells kinda like grandpa’s attic, which I don’t like very much”. The limbic system of our brain is directly connected to the apparatus (pituitary gland and hypothalamus) that controls the hormones that stimulate sensations such as appetite, stress, body temperature, and the ability to concentrate. That is why biologically the sense of smell is so potent every minute of every day we are conscious and why it is the most critical part of your spirit evaluations.
Step-by-step, here’s how I do what I do. I smell every item in three stages. I take a series of gentle sniffs right after the pour, holding the glass just beneath my nose, lips parted to help circumvent the rush of alcohol. I allow it to sit undisturbed for another three minutes and at the five-minute mark I take deeper, longer inhalations. It often takes a spirit that’s been trapped within a bottle several minutes to adjust to its new environment. Then, at the ten-minute mark, I take a parting whiff just in case I missed anything in the first two nosing passes. In all, I spend from five to fifteen minutes total smelling each spirit. In some instances, I will return to the smelling phase after the tasting phase to double-check an observation or to erase a doubt.
For your purposes, I suggest smelling each spirit in your flight in two stages: immediately following the pour and then at the three-minute mark. If you want to, you can always go back and sniff it again after you’ve smelled the other spirits in your flight. IMPORTANT: First smell spirits in the flight one after the other before moving on to taste. Smelling provides context that tasting could never do.
I also like to break down smells into four categories, like floral (rose petal, violet, carnation, jasmine, honeysuckle), nutty (almond, peanut, Hazelnut), spicy (baking spices like cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, clove, allspice or cooking spices such as black pepper, cayenne, sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary, basil), and fruity (orchard fruits, berries, citrus, tropical).
Sense of Taste: Immediately following the smelling stage of the entire flight, I take a small sip of the first entry and let the liquid rest at the tip of my tongue for a few seconds, then spit it out. This is the palate entry stage. This initial impression should remind me at least a little of what was occurring in the smell. Sometimes it doesn’t. Smell and taste are usually in harmony (75 percent of the time, I reckon), but on occasion show little resemblance.
After another minute, I take a larger sip and let that amount rest on the tongue for ten to twenty seconds. This allows the whole of the tongue to be saturated. This midpalate phase makes or breaks the mouth experience. And it’s here where the rating begins to firm up. I spend up to ten minutes tasting several times. You should figure on five minutes max. Some spirits, like cask strength whiskeys, need another round of sniffing and tasting when mineral water is added. A rigid format trains your 10,000 taste buds to work together with your olfactory bulb, creating one unified impression.
Sense of Touch: The feel of a spirit is the final piece of information that I need to render a final decision. Is the spirit oily, thin, syrupy, raw, biting, silky smooth? Any or all of these attributes can affect the score by as much as a star. Also, how long does the taste last in the throat? Extended length usually means a heavier, fuller spirit and is often highly desirable, unless the taste is horribly wrong and flawed.
Savor: By “savor” I simply mean to sit back and enjoy – or not – the entire experience of all the senses over a few moments. The key is to ponder the following three questions: Do I like this product? If I do like it, to what degree of enthusiasm do I like it? If I don’t care for it, to what degree do I dislike it?
For you as an at-home taster, this entire process requires no more than ten to twelve minutes per spirit, give or take two minutes. One needn’t be a biochemist, a Master Sommelier, or a MENSA candidate to derive maximum pleasure. Success in spirits analysis requires, above all, repetition, strict adherence to a comfortable and thorough format, recall, clean and supportive environment and glassware, and keen observation.
• • Summation: Making Sense
Practicing with friends is highly suggested because it is always much better to be exposed to lots of varying viewpoints in your tasting journey than merely one. Oftentimes, someone next to me will cite an attribute that maybe I couldn’t clearly identify and when they mention it (“That’s like saffron!”), it suddenly clicks into place and makes sense. Tasting alone is tedious; take it from me.
Tasting on a regular basis helps to build the mental library that is absolutely necessary for successful critical analysis. If I have learned anything over three decades of tasting experience, it is that without a rich storehouse of reference data, accurate and reliable analysis simply won’t happen, no matter how talented the taster in terms of technique. When you rate a spirit four or five stars, go back to it and pick out the three or four characteristics that make it so delightful (floral, fruity, sweet, ripe, stony, honeyed, you get the idea), then dog-ear those benchmark attributes and file them away in your mental files for future use. Every little bit of information will eventually create a master plan for you that will work because you’ll have made it your own process.
© 2011 F. Paul Pacult
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