Learn the art of tasting spirits
HOW TO TASTE SPIRITS CORRECTLY WITH CSABA GUYLAS
Based in Hungary, I work as a brand ambassador for Diageo Reserve Brands portfolio, a Diageo Bar Academy trainer, and as a hospitality consultant. I have completed the WSET Level 2 Award in Spirits, the WSET Level 3 Awards in Spirits and the WSET Educator Training Programme.
Being able to perceive flavours and textures can transform your cocktail offering – even if you don’t have a wide repertoire. Different styles of spirits offer opportunities to create different styles of cocktails.
In the past decade, there’s been a huge trend stemming from the reimagining of classic cocktails. Understanding flavours ensures that you can readily replace base spirits and develop interesting cocktails with a basic knowledge of classic cocktails and serves.
A category like rum offers a clear insight into how production directly influences the flavour of spirits. This can result in exciting and creative serves that are customer favourites like the daiquiri.
Zacapa rum showcases how production can impact taste. Using an ageing process known as the Solera System, rum is aged in various cask types and styles which capture specific flavours and textures, as well as adding colour to the spirit. To truly understand these elements though, foundations for tasting need to be understood and put in place.
A SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO TASTING SPIRITS
According to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), there are four basic steps to tasting spirits:
- Assessment of quality
When assessing appearance there are a few things to consider. What’s the clarity of the spirit? Is it clear or is it hazy? If it’s hazy, that can signify that there is something faulty with the spirit.
The next thing to then examine is colour. Some typical colours found in spirits are:
So we have the colour, but how intense is the shade? Is it water-white, is it pale, medium, deep, or does it seem opaque (like a cream liqueur)?
Spirits offer a wide breadth of colours and shades, so it’s fun to investigate and decide what you’re seeing!
Your sense of smell helps you understand aromas of the spirit and where they come from. The first step with the nose is to assess the spirit’s condition. Is it clean or unclean? This consideration depends greatly on the category of the spirit. Some typical earthy and smoky notes found in Mezcals are clean for that style, but if you encountered them in a Pisco, you would have cause for concern.
How intense is the aroma that you’re smelling? Is it neutral or light? Sometimes it can be medium or, for some spirits, very pronounced.
Understanding where the aroma characteristics come from is more advanced. This involves looking deeper into the raw materials, fermentation, and post-distillation techniques, such as oak maturation, that are used in the production of many spirits.
On the palate,we experience flavours, textures and structural elements like sweetness and acidity, in our mouths. Most spirits are dry, but if sugar has been added post-distillation then the spirit could be described as off-dry, medium or even sweet like a liqueur.
The flavours we encounter on the palate are linked to production choices like the raw material used. For example, corn will provide flavour descriptors like butterscotch, caramel, and toffee. For agave, you might describe it as having a peppercorn or herbaceous flavour, and rye can offer a spicy, gingerbread flavour.
Texture is integral to spirit tasting and helps you express the full experience of a spirit. Some words we use to describe texture are; rough, silky or even too watery, or it could be smooth and warming.
4. ASSESSMENT OF QUALITY
Now that we have described what we are tasting, we get to discuss the balance, length, complexity and expressiveness of the spirit. This is the exciting part –putting all the elements together to describe the full profile and character of the spirit.
Assessing quality level is important as it helps you see if something is average, good, or outstanding compared with others in the category. Using specific criteria for quality will help you do this accurately.
As you gain more experience, your flavour vocabulary grows and your palate becomes more refined, which will be reflected in even more precise descriptions.
This lends itself well to cocktail creation as you’ll be able to notice subtler notes and facilitates a whole new experience of texture and flavour for your guests.
DETAILING YOUR TASTING NOTES
Now that we know the step-by-step process, it is time to put this into action. Let’s use Zacapa XO as an example to help you understand how you should describe a liquid.
For Zacapa XO, you could say that it is warm and complex on the nose with hints of vanilla, honey, dried fruits, smoke, and orange peel. It has a warming and smooth texture on the palate, which is highlighted by flavours of vanilla, dark chocolate, nutmeg, raisins, dried fruits, and fine oak with a lasting finish.
Zacapa is a rich and complex rum that is extremely flavourful, making it easy to distinguish different flavours. Give it a try the next time you are enjoying a premium spirit.
- Learning how to taste correctly can enhance your experience of a spirit and elevate your serves.
- Practice your tasting skills – write down your tasting notes, and descriptions of appearance, nose, palate, and quality.
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