By Noon Inthasuwan
Anytime you notice a spirit or wine lover evaluating their drink of choice, it’s important to understand that they aren’t posturing, but rather they put value on experiencing the sensual experience their drink of choice provides. But what is it that they’re actually doing?
To properly taste food and beverage, we utilize four of our five senses: sight, smell, touch and taste. We taste in order to have a sensory evaluation of what’s in front of us. That sensory evaluation would then lead to a sensory memory of a particular subject which would then leads us to recognition, identification and future reference.
All this sounds complicated; however with practice, it’s very enjoyable and adds to the overall experience. Additionally, training our senses can further enhance your vocabulary, memory and knowledge of wine and food.
How we taste is important, as these are the means by which we have to employ in order to evaluate what is in the glass. Here are the important points that I usually bear in mind when tasting spirits:
Through the process of distillation, spirits start off as colorless. The colors of spirits come from mainly three sources:
- addition of artificial colors (Apple Pucker anyone?),
- added caramel or sweetening agents,
- time in wood.
For the quality category, the color is usually the result of the latter 2 factors. Unlike wine, spirits rarely change color through oxidation. For white spirits, they are usually clear, watery or platinum in color and to a certain degree; one might be able to notice the “grayation” in the slight glisten of the colorless tone. The color is typically an indication to the type of distillation and quality of the spirit. Spirits that have been subjected to a pot still might have a duller shade compared to one that has gone through continuous distillation. Just like wine, the “legs” or “tears” indicate the level of alcohol and sugar in the spirit.
Unlike smelling wine where we would typically take the “Nose Dive” into the glass, aromatics from spirits can be easily detected just by waving the glass in front of our nose. Due to the higher alcohol content of spirits, our sense of smell might be overwhelmed if we stick our noses straight into the glass and start inhaling (nevermind that your eyes will start to water). The alcohol content of a spirit acts as a platform which pushes aromatics forward. High-quality spirits, aromas wafting off gently without us having to dive our noses into the glass, while lower-quality spirits typically offer aromas with a rough edge.
With the function of our olfactory factor (the receptor in our nasal cavity that converts the esters in alcohol into a smell for our brain), 80% of what we taste is what we smell. The nose of the spirits will prepare us and lay down the basic flavor components to look for when we actually taste the spirit. With different spirits, there are different elements to look for when we are assessing the nose. Herbaciousness might be more pronounced in Tequila than Vodka. Saltiness might be more prevalent in Scotch from Islay than Speyside.
The palate is the only organ that has direct connection to our brain with smell and tastes as chemoreceptors. When paying attention to taste, there are two main components that we seek out:
- Texture: light, rich, full bodied, velvety, chewy
- Flavor: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, Umami, and astringency
Astringency is very important when we taste spirits, as a good spirit has to have a good balance of dryness, purity as well as the astringency. Astringency is important as it makes our mouth salivate thus refreshing the palate and makes us ready to drink or eat more. It’s also important as a building block for creating cocktails. In wine tasting, we can tell a lot about a wine just from nosing it. However, with spirits, it is essential to taste so to make judgments on texture and astringency.
When tasting spirits, one should taste twice. The first taste is to rinse our palate and condition the mouth. It’s also important for us to be able to identify the different locations of the predominant taste receptors on our tongue. Sweet on the tip, salty on the front, sour to the sides, Umami on the mid-tongue and bitter to the back
As alcohol is sugar, and we can taste sweetness or the sensation of alcohol on the front tip of our tongue, it is essential that with the second taste, one should roll the liquid over the palate to coat the entire mouth, with a quick inhale to open things up and enhance the receptors on the soft palate in the back of the tongue. A good spirit should leave a menthol sensation on the tongue with a slight waxy coating of the lips after being spit out. After spitting, it is also recommended to breathe out through the nose again with lips closed to assess the finish and the complexity.
Sometime when tasting spirits, especially with Whisk(e)y , it’s popular to add water to dilute the alcohol so as to expose more aromatics and characteristics of the spirits. Personally, I find this to be very practical especially when trying to evaluate spirits for use in a cocktail.
The different characteristics of spirits, at different temperature, are also essential in tasting spirits. Two important points to keep in mind: how the spirits would behave when served warmed or chilled and at what temperature should it be served to maximize the enjoyment. To illustrate this, think of how the same Bourbon would taste different in an old-fashioned vs. a Hot Toddy. As a Mixologist, I always taste spirits at different temperatures to decide how to best incorporate them into cocktails, especially those that are more seasonal.
With the trend of molecular gastronomy and “Bar Chefs”, spirits are now being utilized, more than ever, in the kitchen. Chef Paul Stella (Culinary Institute of America) has created a cucumber-mint granita with organic Crop Cucumber Vodka to top oysters on the half shell. Other delicious examples also include Grand Marnier in a Crepe Suzette, Banana Fosters flambéed with Cognac or Rum, Penne Alla Vodka…who’s hungry/thirsty now?!
Good spirits should have a harmony of flavors and textures. They should be good representations of these three main components: the raw materials and their quality, the quality of distillation, and the maturing process that the spirits have been subjected to.
Since we taste to arrive at sensory evaluation, group sessions and discussions are beneficial and fun. They provide us with a wider range of descriptions, adjectives and associations, which in turn can enhance our relationship with what we consume. It’s human nature that we have preferences towards certain tastes and flavors. To be a good taster is to have an open mind and try to find, develop and accept the flavor profiles that have been suggested by the others. Dill pickle in Tequila, sawdust in gin, cheese curd in vodka…sounds ridiculous, but you’ll be surprised with what you come up with yourself.
It’s time for a drink…or maybe at least a taste!
Noon Inthasuwan is a certified Sommelier with the International Sommelier Guild and the US chapter of Court of Master Sommeliers, Certified Wine and Spirits Specialist with the Society of Wine Educators and a BarSmarts certified Mixologist course graduate with teaching stints at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Boston. She is currently active in the Restaurant & Hospitality industry and also the founder of the blog on thoughtful imbibings at www.properlydrunk.com.