The Rules for Tasting Spirits Like A Pro

We’ve given plenty of tips on how to navigate wine tasting rooms. But what are the tricks for how to taste whiskey, rum and other spirits like an expert?
Illustration by Amber Day

“No oranges,” insisted the master whiskey blender. “No fast-food burgers.”

No, this isn’t a blueprint for the latest Paleo-Keto-Raw Foods diet plan. It’s part of a shortlist of highly aromatic items banned from the tasting lab. These scents could skew the perception of how a whiskey smells and tastes.

While most of us don’t sample whiskeys in a clinical lab situation, the rules have some merit. Fragrant food may taste delightful, but the scent can linger on your fingers long after lunchtime. That can impact what you detect when you lift a glass to your nose.

The following tips, sourced from the pros, can prove helpful in distillery tasting rooms, when enjoying a flight of spirits at a bar or restaurant, or simply sampling something new at home.

Fast food burger illustration
Illustration by Amber Day

Avoid overly spicy or stinky foods right before a tasting.

Save the five-alarm garlic chicken for a day when you don’t plan to test-drive a new spirit.

Such dishes can overwhelm not just your palate, but your nose, too. At Crown Royal, the largest producer of Canadian whisky, master blender Joanna Zanin Scandella has strict rules about what to keep out of the tasting lab.

She advises her team to not peel oranges right before a tasting, as the aromatic oils from orange skin will dominate for hours afterward. Peeled orange slices are OK, she says.

How Wine Affects Your Whiskey

One of the worst offenders? Fast-food hamburger wrappers. “You smell it on your hands long after the burger is gone,” says Zanin Scandella.

Of course, some take this to extremes. Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender at Suntory, eats the same thing for lunch each day to ensure palate consistency when he evaluates Japanese whiskies. Many pros analyze spirits before lunch, but it’s hard to recommend that for a casual tasting experience. In that scenario, a full stomach is your friend.

Illustration of pink perfume bottle
Illustration by Amber Day

Dial down the perfume, scented hand soaps, etc.

Just as you shouldn’t wear strong perfume to a wine tasting, the rule also applies to spirits.

“Any aroma in the air can affect how we perceive the spirit,” says Kelsey McKechnie, whisk(e)y blender for William Grant & Sons. “We don’t wear scented deodorant to work and avoid scented hand soaps. We also insist anyone who works in the sample room avoids perfume.”

Alexandre Gabriel, owner/master blender for Maison Ferrand, works regularly with nuanced spirits like Cognac, rum and gin. He has similar rules.

“No cologne, of course, [and] no mouthwash,” says Gabriel. “A shower with soft neutral and natural soap. This is important because nowadays, some shower gels are truly horribly [scented].

“How can you taste well if you smell like an artificial mango-papaya shower gel?”

For a home tasting, an unscented environment is best, says Caley Shoemaker, head distiller for the Hangar 1 vodka brand in Alameda, California. For example, don’t taste in the kitchen while dinner cooks.

“And don’t be burning incense while you’re tasting,” says Shoemaker.

Illustration of nose smelling above a rocks glass
Illustration by Amber Day

Nose above the glass, not in the glass.

In wine tasting, it’s encouraged to immerse your nose in the glass and deeply inhale. However, the higher alcohol levels in distilled spirits mean that it’s best to inhale gently, with your nose hovering just above the rim of the glass. Swirling the glass is also rarely necessary for spirits tasting.

“In spirits, when you swirl, it releases a bunch of alcohol…you won’t be able to smell any of the nuances,” says Shoemaker. “Professionals know that, but consumers might not.”

Illustration of spoon full of whiskey
Illustration by Amber Day

Sip on it, just a little bit.

Spitting is encouraged, especially if you plan to sample multiple pours. But when you taste a new dram, try the approach of Melkon Khosrovian, co-founder and spirits maker of Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles.

“Sip a teaspoon-sized amount, let it sit on the tongue for 10 seconds and swallow all of it,” says Khosrovian. “No swirling, swishing or spitting. This lets you experience the spirit’s full range of flavors, along with how quickly it evaporates, how much of your palate it reaches, and how it finishes. It’s our way to judge how spirits will perform in real life.”

Illustration of 80 proof bottle of alcohol
Illustration by Amber Day

Respect the proof, and your reaction to the proof.

Keep an eye on the proof of the spirit. Anything more than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) usually means that the distiller hasn’t added much water. Cask-strength or barrel-strength bottlings, as well as those labeled “overproof” or “Navy strength,” can rise above 100 proof.

You can try higher-proof spirits straight, but it’s perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to add water or ice to adjust to your tastes. At tasting rooms and some high-end bars, you may spot small pitchers or glass bottles of water with droppers, intended for adjusting your drink.

In sensory evaluation, when we’re looking very analytically at a sample, we’ll dilute it all the way down to 40 proof to ensure the alcohol isn’t skewing our perception of the flavor or dulling the palate in any way,” says Marianne Eaves, master distiller at Castle & Key, a new Bourbon distillery in Kentucky.

Eaves and other pros benefit from tools that measure alcohol levels with precision. But there’s no hard-and-fast way for the rest of us to know when we’ve hit the 40-proof sweet spot. The best option is to add water a little at a time, until you’ve reached a level that’s comfortable to sip, but still flavorful.

Published on September 25, 2018
Topics: Spirits Basics
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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