There’s a lot of colourful, descriptive and evocative language used when describing spirits, and while the imagery called to mind can make a spirit sound inviting, the descriptions themselves can sometimes be a bit over-the-top. Generally the language used to describe a spirits aroma, flavour and mouth-feel isn’t quite as elaborate as with wine tasting (can you really smell the fresh dew on a dandelion petal in the morning sunlight?) but to someone who’s new to smelling and tasting spirits, it can still be intimidating.
To a lot of people bourbon smells like whiskey, gin smells a bit piney and vodka smells like alcohol, so when they read that they should be smelling dried apricot, pencil shavings and vanilla fudge, they wonder if they're doing something wrong. So I thought I’d take a look at the language we use to describe the effect alcohol has on our senses and the way we approach identifying the characteristics of different spirits. Take this as a beginners guide to the language of tasting spirits, if you will.
In fact it’s probably best if we start with what aroma, taste and flavour are and how we actually process them. To anyone new to smelling and tasting spirits, I hope this will speed your journey into appreciating them in a new way. If you’re an old hand at this sort of thing, you never know you may pick up something new along the way, or even better you may have something to add, so please feel free to comment.
Flavour is an interesting thing; you see most people mistake flavour and taste as being the same thing, but they definitely aren’t. Flavour is the combined effect of our sense of smell and sense of taste, topped off with the physical feel of anything we put in our mouth. As such flavour is a complicated thing that really should be understood prior to shoving our nose into a glass of some tasty liquid or taking a swig.
To start with it helps if you understand how and what humans can actually taste. That may sound like a strange statement, I mean come on, we all know what a steak tastes like, or how a strawberry tastes right? Chances are you don’t actually. The ability to taste is actually very limited and very little of what we sense when we put something in our mouths is based on taste.
The human mouth is blessed with almost 10,000 taste buds, the majority of which can be found on the tongue. However, these little taste receptors are quite limited in what they can detect. The truth is we can only sense five things with taste buds: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (which could just as well be called savoury). Here’s a simple experiment for you: take a sweet from a bag full of mixed sweets, and without looking at it and pop it in your mouth while pinching your nose. The only thing you’ll be able to tell is that it’s sweet; you won’t pick up any of the unique flavours that identify what flavour the sweet is. If you then release your nose and breath in and out, suddenly a wealth of information will be transmitted to your brain to help you identify the flavours in your mouth.
It turns out that 90 to 95% of what we experience as flavour comes from our sense of smell, backed up with information from our taste buds about how sweet, sour, salty, savoury or bitter the item is. Even then, our sense of smell is no simple thing and extends well beyond what happens in our noses alone. When we inhale our sense of smell is triggered and we detect a wide range of aromas, but it is during exhalation that our olfactory senses contribute to flavour. When we exhale, particles travel from the throat and back of the mouth up into the back of the nasal cavity where scent information is combined with taste information to tell us what flavours we are ‘tasting’.
Having at least a basic understanding of how scent and taste combine to create flavour definitely helps when it comes to tasting spirits. This knowledge has lead me to follow a certain procedure when I try a spirit for the first time. I’m not by any means saying that my way is the best way, but by understanding what is happening in my head I am able to approach spirit tasting in a way that suits me.
I always think that trying a spirit for the first time is a little like meeting a stranger at the bar. At first there is the small talk and pleasantries, which with a spirit is gently inhaling through the nose while the glass is still a few inches away. These first few gentle sniffs serve to warm up the senses and give you a little information to work with. Are there already strong aromas coming through even from a distance? Is this spirit fumy and strong? Are you picking up herbal and floral notes or rich earthy tones? This initial approach gives you a chance to weigh up your potential relationship with this ‘stranger at the bar’.
Next I move in closer to the spirit, getting to know my new acquaintance a little better. A slightly stronger inhalation will allow me to start picking out individual aromas. I start to get a picture of the spirit and can tell whether it is complex and full of character, light and dainty or one dimensional and uninspiring. Most of all I can start to know if this ‘stranger’ might be worth me getting to know a little better. In a well-made spirit, I usually find that the aromas give me a good indication of what I can hope to taste, although any spirit can hold a few surprises.
I like to set the glass down then and take a few moments to appreciate what I have just smelled. This also gives me a chance to let my sense of smell reset itself so that I continue to remain sensitive to aromas and flavours. A useful hint if you’re tasting multiple spirits or are starting to get slightly numb to the aromas, is to sniff the back of your hand between your thumb and forefinger. A quick inhalation of the skin here will serve to reset the sense of smell and allow you to start afresh.
Now that I’ve formed an initial impression based on aroma, the small talk is out of the way and it’s time to get to know my new friend a little better. I like to take one last sniff before I taste just to make sure that my first impression was right. Then it’s time to taste. I’ve become quite blasé about smelling and tasting spirits because I do it all the time, but it’s always worth remembering that we are talking about a liquid that has a high alcohol content. Treat the liquid with respect and think about how your tongue is likely to cope with a strong spirit.
Personally I like to smell and taste spirits at their full strength, but if having taken a few sniffs you are finding the alcohol fumes overpowering, then the chances are you’ll find the same when you taste it. There’s nothing wrong with adding a splash of water to tame the alcohol, in fact it can be quite a useful way to open up the spirit so that you can more clearly pick out individual flavours and aromas. I often do this after I’ve tried it at full strength, but the trick is to find what works best for you.
When first tasting a spirit, it’s best to take a small sip and roll it over your tongue making sure that every part has a chance to experience it. Then swallow and gently breathe out. Note that breathing in sharply after taking your first sip is likely to see you inhale a lot of alcohol fumes, which isn’t a pleasant way to be introduced to a spirit. There are certain bits of information I look for in this first small sip: does any character jump out right away, such as sweetness or bitterness? How does the liquid feel on my tongue? Burning and strong or fresh and light? Does the liquid coat my tongue and linger, or is the experience over with quickly?
The first sip also tells you the most dominant characteristics of the spirit. You get the most obvious flavours from that first sip and this starts forming a picture of what the liquid has to offer. Many times the first sip also raises a lot of questions, such as what is that floral note I pick up at the end? Or is that dried fruit in the middle?
Lastly I take a slightly larger sip, once again taking the time to roll it over my tongue before swallowing. Now I’m looking a little deeper into the character of my new friend, picking out the details that make this spirit unique. I also pay attention to what happens when I breathe in and out a couple of times as I often find the more subtle flavours come through on the breath.
Having taken my time to get to know this ‘stranger at the bar’, I now have a clear idea as to whether we’ll become long-time friends, or if this is a spirit I don’t wish to know any better than as a casual acquaintance. You don’t need long to work through this process, but taking a little time to experience a spirit fully can lead to a much deeper appreciation of it. That being said, if it’s a shot of Fernet Branca in front of you, there’s no need for all the poncing around, just down it and get on with your evening!
All of the above is just the prelude to what I actually intended to write about which is the language we use when describing spirits. I recently sat in on a session hosted by Sean Ware and Sam Carter of Bombay Spirits, which discussed how we taste and how important it is to understand what we are smelling and tasting in spirits. The interesting thing for me was that they both endorsed learning not only how to smell and taste, but also learning to have a language that describes what we experience, As they put it ‘we’re taught to read and write, but not how to taste’. So having explained above the physical side of tasting, what’s left?
To me it seems obvious that the better you can understand the unique flavours and aromas of a spirit, the easier it is to describe them. This was illustrated beautifully to me recently when two friends came to stay. Neither are in the drinks industry, but both have expressed an interest in learning more about cocktails and spirits, so while I was cooking dinner we did a rum tasting. What was interesting for me was how their descriptions changed over time.
The first rum tasted was described as sweet, creamy with a bit of vanilla. Now to an experienced bartender or spirit geek, this seems like a ridiculously simple description, but imagine if you have never tasted spirits neat other than to enjoy them in a social environment. With no frame of reference and not being used to tasting neat spirits, where do you start? Sweet, vanilla and creamy? Yep, that describes rum quite nicely at a basic level.
As we moved through several different styles of rum, Christina’s and Steve’s descriptions got longer and more elaborate. Citrus notes were detected, tropical fruits were mentioned, floral aromas were being picked out. It was surprising how quickly the language was developing.
Below I have chosen two very different spirits that illustrate how you can develop a way of describing what you are smelling and tasting. I hope they will make it easier for you to experience spirits in their purest form and describe them to others. The better our language for describing spirits (and cocktails) becomes, the more we can share our understanding of what makes one product more appealing than another.
I think in many ways Gin is the best spirit with which to learn to smell and taste; it offers instant confirmation of your senses because essentially it’s a neutral spirit infused with botanicals. With Gin, many of the aromas and flavours you pick up can be directly attributed to the specific ingredients used to produce it, so you are instantly able to understand what you are smelling and tasting.
I’ve chosen Monkey 47 Gin, because it’s so complex and full of flavours that every time I try it I find something new to appreciate. It is one of my favourite gins, and while it is relatively new to the UK, it has fast become a go-to product. Neutral grain spirit is distilled with 47 unusual botanicals, and combined to form a beautifully balanced and full flavoured Gin, so for the purpose of learning to identify the individual components of a complex liquid it is ideal.
On the first smell, I am rewarded with crisp pine and citrus notes, along with more subtle spice and earthy notes. I can instantly tell that there is a lot going on inside the glass. The pine notes are one of the key characteristics of Juniper (whick of course must be the dominant flavour in Gin), so right away I know that my nose is working well.
As I move the glass closer and inhale again the citrus comes through more clearly and I can pick up not only a light crisp lemon note but perhaps lime and grapefruit too. The spice that was hinted at before is also clearer on the second approach and now I can also pick out coriander, nutmeg and thyme. This time though I’m also getting some floral notes that, upon a third sniff, I think might be hibiscus and lavender.
Of course you could probably find all this out by exploring the brand website but it’s much more interesting to see what else might come through when I take a sip or two. So enjoying the first sip I immediately notice that there is a pleasant sweetness to the liquid with some very subtle bitter notes coming through after a moment or two.
The first flavours are those reflected in the aroma: pine and lemon peel, thyme and nutmeg, but as these fade, I also pick up cinnamon or cassia bark. There’s pepper corn, and a flavour that makes me thing of dried berries, and as these give way, I pick up floral notes that are more on the breath than the tongue. The last flavours that linger remind me of fresh herbs and flowers; an almost green flavour of basil, along with light violet and honeysuckle. All in all it’s a marvellous journey through flavours and aromas and I hope that when I explore the actual botanicals used I will find that much of what I’ve identified will be in the mix.
Looking at the Monkey 47 website I soon learn that while many of the botanicals I picked up are there, there are also a lot of ingredients that I didn’t pick out. That’s the beauty of tasting spirits; everyone has a different sense of taste and smell as well as a different bank of memories associated with individual flavours and scents. It’s this inner catalogue of aromas that help us to actually put scent and taste into words and communicate the experience to others, and so this is the language we must learn if we are to be proficient in tasting spirits.
To be good at communicating in the language of spirits you have to have experienced a wide variety of flavours and aromas, so that you have a ‘library’ to draw on. I picked out honeysuckle as one of the botanicals because something I smelled and tasted in Monkey 47 reminded me of being young and playing in the garden at my Grandmother’s house. It sounds silly, but I made that emotional connection before I could actually pick out what it was that I was smelling. As soon as you enable yourself to experiencing the aromas and flavours with an open mind, you start being able to pick out individual characteristics from a very complex liquid.
While tasting Gin offers you a chance to test yourself against a known set of flavours and aromas which you can trace back to the ingredients used to make it, dark spirits can offer much more of a challenge. A lot of the flavour and aroma found in an aged spirit comes from its time spent aging in wooden barrels, and the way in which the spirit changes during this process. How long the spirit has spent in the barrel, what sort of wood was used, and whether the barrel was new or had been used before, all play a big part in the final character of the spirit. Add to this the unique properties of the liquid before it had even started aging and as you can see there are a lot of elements to consider.
All of these complex factors come together to create a unique product, and that is perhaps the main reason why people get so attached to spirit categories such as Rum, Whiskey and Cognac. Just as every tree is different, so every barrel of liquid produced will have its own unique properties. In blended products, the art is to marry flavours in such a way that the finished spirit is consistent. In single barrel expressions often the subtle differences between batches are what connoisseurs enjoy.
Let’s take Four Roses Single Barrel as an example, in this case the barrel is identified as NN 4-6E, which translated into English means it was from a barrel that spent it’s life in the 14th warehouse on the north side, fourth row in on the left, sixth barrel from the floor and fifth back in the rack. Now I’m pretty familiar with this product as I work for the brand on a part time basis, so hopefully I can talk from a point of experience. Approaching the glass from a distance I’m struck by how sweet, woody and vanilla filled the aroma is. I also notice that the smell of alcohol is surprisingly subdued. This isn’t the big hitting aroma you might expect from a spirit that’s 50% abv.
On getting closer to the spirit I find that underneath the top sweet vanilla notes there is burnt caramel, dark cherry, dry cinnamon and an almost brioche like richness. The smell is what I think of as compact, the individual scents are tightly bound together and complex in the way they communicate to me. I decide to pour a second glass and this time add a splash of cold water to see if the aromas open up a little.
Sure enough just a small dash of water and the flavours come through more clearly now. I can smell the bready grain notes underneath the sweetness, and now the burnt caramel smells like a combination of toffee and charred wood. I’m surprised to find that along with the dark cherry aroma I picked up first time around, there’s now a clear burnt orange note along with dried fruit that makes me think of dates. The vanilla is nicely balanced against all of this, not overpowering at all, and playing off of those sweet notes are dry cinnamon bark and an almost black pepper spiciness.
I decide to sip it neat first so that I can experience the full flavour impact, and the first thing I notice is that this is a sweet, rich liquid that coats and clings to my tongue. There are hints of bitterness that I notice briefly, but pretty soon the vanilla toffee and dark fruit flavours have this balanced to perfection. The spice is still there but more on the breathe than the tongue, and the brioche flavour is sitting underneath everything binding it all together. The flavour starts to dry out leaving a lingering impression of toasted wood, a hint of aniseed and the last lingering lick of vanilla. The last thing I notice is that as the spirit turns dry my mouth starts to water making me want to take another sip.
Tasting it again, but this time from the glass that has had a splash of water added, I find the same flavours in the same order, only each is more clear and easy to identify. In addition to the flavours I picked up the first time, I find toasted almonds, dark chocolate, coffee and on my breath something that reminds me of leather. It’s again a flavour journey and one I could (and often do) enjoy again and again.
Now knowing how the spirit is made and the aging process it has gone through can only help us out so much this time. The brioche notes might well come from the grain used as the base ingredient, the vanilla comes from the charred new oak barrel (the wood has a natural substance called vanillin in it, which is the same thing that gives vanilla its unique flavour), and the smoky burnt notes may well come from the charred wood. But other than that the aromas and flavours I pick up are the impression that this spirit give, it’s not as though the bourbon has been infused with a pair of leather gloves, orange rind, cherries, aniseed, dark chocolate and brioche. The fact of the matter is that dark spirit tasting is a much more subjective thing than tasting something like Gin where the ingredients speak for themselves.
Within different spirit categories we often find certain common tasting notes, rum for example often has sugar based sweetness like toffee or caramel, you often find nutty aromas and flavours and sometimes dried fruits. With Gin the flavours tend to be lighter and more fresh and it tends to be a more lively and uplifting spirit. With Tequila there is almost always a grassy vegetal flavour that comes from the agave as well as mineral and metallic aromas. With Bourbon vanilla is the common thread running through most products, and with a peated Scotch the smell of TCP is a dead give away.
That being said each bottle offers us a chance for a new tasting experience, with new flavour combinations coming together. It’s this diversity in products that keeps cocktail geeks coming back to the bar time and time again, keeps bartenders learning and experimenting, and gives us bloggers plenty to write about.
The great thing about tasting spirits is that there is no right or wrong; everyone has a slightly different sense of smell and taste, everyone has had different experiences of tasting different ingredients, and therefore has a different library of flavours to draw on. It’s satisfying when you smell and taste a spirit for the first time and pick up combinations of flavours that you find pleasing. Just because you smell baked apple pie and pencil shavings doesn’t mean that the person next to you will find the same things.
Every spirit is different, but understanding how scent and taste work to combine as flavour, and knowing how to approach a spirit when you taste it for the first time should help you to explore the world of spirits and develop the language of tasting. Just don’t take it too far and tell me that you can smell the fur from behind the left ear of a newly born kitten… let’s leave that sort of nonsense to the wine brigade!