The Explainer: how to taste and assess spirits

tasting-glasses
Tasting and assessing spirits can be a tough gig (just ask the bartenders who sat on our overproof rum blind tasting panel). It can also be an intimidating experience for new tasters, because you may wonder how some people are picking up aromas and flavours that you can’t.

Well, one piece of advice on that: even the most astute tasters started in that position, and it’s something that with practise — and a few tips — everyone can do. We asked a couple of bartenders — James Connolly of Angel’s Cut in Perth, and our Bartender of the Year Nathan Beasley of Melbourne’s Black Pearl, for some tasting advice.

The tasting method
James Connolly suggested two methods for tasting: “You can get a small amount in a tasting glass,” he said. “Smell the aroma — keeping your mouth open helps.” (More on that a bit later).

”Take a small amount into your mouth and gently warm across the palate and then spit (yeah right) or swallow and enjoy the finish,” Connolly said. “[You can] return to it later , seeing what else you pick up and whether it’s changed over time.”

The other method Connolly suggests is a touch less serious.

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“The other technique is to just drink the shit out of it! I sometimes find I pick up more by consuming a whole shot at once…”

Taste and flavour
You might have noticed that Connolly suggested keeping your mouth open as you smell a spirit. Why? Well it
helps to understand a bit about how humans taste.

There are five tastes, as you may know: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. We perceive these tastes because of receptors in the mouth. But the flavour of food or drink is driven more by aroma compounds, and because of retronasal olfaction. This means when you’ve got a spirit in your mouth, these aroma compounds carry through to the back of the mouth and up into the back of the nose where they’re picked up by olfactory receptors. So much of what we perceive of as flavour is actually aroma. You can test this out by holding your nose shut and tasting spirit — you might be able to taste sweetness or sourness, but much of the flavour will be gone.

nathan-beasley-james-connollyNathan Beasley (left), and james Connolly

Read more and practise — it’s a skill to develop
Though some people may appear to be amazing tasters, don’t underestimate the work that goes into learning how to do it. As always, reading up on how other people taste — particularly the wine world — can help.

“There are lots of books on how to taste wine and generally these rules apply to spirits also,” said Connolly.

“You can get along to any masterclass, especially if they are run by the head distiller, because nobody knows the spirit better than the person who makes it!”

Beasley said that in his preparation for the Bartender of the Year competition, he spent many days practicing his tasting.

“Quite a few days off were spent nosing, tasting and eventually spilling all manner of spirits, liqueurs and cocktails,” he said.

Find the way that works best for you
Connolly and Beasley both have different approaches when they taste spirits blind.

“I try to access every aspect of the liquid in order to help me narrow it down,” said Beasley. “The colour, the primary ingredient, a notable flavour, alcohol heat from the glass, the legs of the liquid if necessary.”

Connolly, on the other hand, works via a process of elimination. “Tick off all the things it definitely isn’t first and work from there,” he suggested. “Once you’ve decided what it most likely isn’t then you can start to work on all the things it reminds you of and hopefully come to a conclusion.”

When assessing quality, keep an open mind
To be able to give an informed opinion about the quality of a spirit, it’s important to have tasted widely, said Connolly.

“You need to taste a lot of spirits both good and bad — tough gig I know!” he said. “Generally I would question anything that tastes artificial or is unbalanced as a rule.”

Beasley also keeps in mind how he’s going to use the spirit when assessing its quality.

“If it is a spirit that lends itself to mixing, then I like to run it through the classic cocktails and mixers to see if it stands up,” he said. Work in a bar where we mix so many spirits, I think that is really important.

“If it is something to be sipped on, something to savour, then aromas and flavours that are representative of the spirit category is important. A lingering finish with that echo of flavour I think is also important.”

Finally, Connolly believes to truly assess a spirit you mustn’t pre-judge it.

“Always taste with an opened mind and try not to let pre-conceived ideas cloud your judgement.”

indie-tasting
The inaugural Indie Tasting is dedicated to shining a light on the amazing array of small, artisan and craft spirits now available or coming soon to Australia — and it’s happening during Sydney Bar Week this year.

It’s happening at Frankie’s Pizza on Tuesday the 22nd of September from midday till 4:30pm and we’re going to have a curated selection of some very cool booze. Tickets will go on sale in July — for this and more great events visit barweek.com.au. If you would like to showcase your brand email david@spantonmedia.com.

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