How To

How to Taste Spirits

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We here at Make & Muddle frequently refer to brown spirits as “Legacy Spirits”.  We utilized that phrase when we began qualifying any spirit that has tradition, history, and age as something special worth handing down from generation to generation.

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Legacy spirits can include whiskey, tequila, rum, cognac, brandy, or any other aged spirit.  It can also include unaged versions of a spirit destined for a barrel like rum, tequila, brandy and whiskey.  There is a wide world of aged spirits out there.  So many to taste and experience that it can be overwhelming.  Flavor profiles that range anywhere from fresh and green to smoky and earthy to vanilla, maple, and brown sugar.

Tasting them is an utter joy and experiencing it with folks that you enjoy is an even richer experience.  We highly recommend building a legacy spirits collection of your own to share with family and friends.  You can start with a few inexpensive bottles and go from there.

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My personal collections have started with a “Mixing Spirit” and then expanded to include more bottles of mixing spirits, then more expensive bottles and then moved up in price point to more exotic or rare bottles.  Delicious spirits don’t have to be expensive and collections don’t have to be rare.  My current “whiskey of the year” is a $23 bottle because it does EVERYTHING I want it to do- neat, rocks, mixed.  And all for under $30?  Take my money.  One of Make & Muddle’s favorite tasting programs we offer is the “Under $35 Club” where every single delicious bottle on the tasting is under $35.  If your budget allows, buy what you enjoy, no matter the price point.

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We think there are a few general guidelines to tasting that can be used for any spirit.  Here is what you will need.

Prep

  • Glassware is a critical component of every tasting.  The shape of a glass dictates how you experience any spirit.  We recommend a glass with a round base and narrow opening so that the aromas or nose of the spirit can be easily detected and funneled directly to you.  The Glen Cairn glasses pictured above are a wonderful way to taste spirits, but there are a wide variety of glassware options.  Choose some that not only will get the job done, but also speak to you in some way when you hold them.  Tastings are as much about the experience as about the flavors happening.  Handmade cups are also a fantastic way to taste spirits also and elevate the experience for sure.  The color of the spirit is not as easily seen, but with spirits that have little color differentiation (such as Reposado tequilas), it doesn’t matter as much and the artist connection more than makes up for not seeing the color in each glass.
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Porcelain hand carved skull bourbon bottle and shot glasses.  Photo courtesy of Steven G Cheek Ceramics.
  • Pour every expression that you would like to taste at the same time.
  • Line up all pours ranging from mildest/smallest flavor profile to boldest/biggest.  This can be informed by age, mash bills (grain recipes), color, etc. If some of them are out of order the first time, no worries.  You can fix it the next time.  Some spirits may be very close in flavor profiles.
  • Do some homework and find the distiller’s notes on the spirit online.  It is a good thing to have something to compare your own taste to.  It is also a good guide for beginning tasters to help them figure out what they are tasting.  Every spirit has its own vocabulary and flavor palate.  Are you tasting the sweet molasses and burnt sugar of rums?  The citrus and green of tequila?  The smoke of Scotch whiskey?  The vanilla or maple of bourbon?  Tasting notes help inform that vocabulary.
  • Everyone will need a glass of water, some paper and pens or pencils with which to take notes.  Everything starts to run together after the third glass and taking note is helpful for the next time you are at the spirits shop.
  • We recommend a water dropper with distilled water to add a drop or two of water to the spirit and tasting it before and after the drop of water to see the nuances of the spirit.  Legacy spirits usually open up beautifully with a drop of water and all of the subtleties that were waiting patiently at the back are now front and center.
  • Lastly, it is about finishing the race, not winning it.  The spirit will change dramatically over the course of the tasting as it opens up. It is one of our favorite things about good spirits.  We recommend taking small sips and revisiting each spirit again later in the tasting.

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Now that you are set up, you can begin.  We start with…

The Color

  • What color is it?
  • Is it darker or lighter than others?
  • What are the circumstances around the barrel?
  • How long was it in the barrel?
  • Where was the barrel stored?

The Nose

  • Swirl the spirit in the glass and take a whiff.  What do you smell?
  • The main rule for spirit tasting is that you smell what you smell and you taste what you taste.  There is no right or wrong answer for things.
  • Sense memory is a powerful thing.  What may smell like the freshly cut green fields of your youth may smell like someone else’s moldy basement.  The smells can trigger positive or negative memories the same way that one break up song you love does.

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The Taste

  • Now you can take a sip.  You want to swish the spirit around to coat your entire mouth.  When you do this, your mouth is going to begin to water and you might experience some “burn” from the alcohol.
  • Immediately take another sip.  Your mouth should be better acclimated and you can begin to actually taste the spirit.
  • What do you taste?  Again- there are no right or wrong answers.  If you need some guidance, look at the distiller’s notes to give you a direction.  The more frequently you taste spirits, the better your palate will become.
  • Add a drop of distilled water to the glass and swirl and taste it again.  How did it change?
  • What new flavors are you picking up with the drop of water added?

The Finish

  • After you swallow the sip of spirit, there is a lingering taste/experience in your mouth.  We call that “The finish”.
  • Is the finish long or short, spicy or sweet, smoky or earthy?
  • Do you enjoy the finish or do you want it to do something different?
  • Does the flavor or experience change from the nose to the taste to the finish? In what way?

Some basic guidelines for tasting spirits can make just a pour with friends into an experience that is something special.  The thing we love most about them is that folks are forced to slow down and have a conversation about something that is delicious. Sometimes those conversations lead to more in depth conversations…and more delicious pours.  We hope that you are building a delicious collection of Legacy Spirits to enjoy with those you love .  Be sure to let us know what your favorite pours are!!  Cheers, y’all!!

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