We use almost all our senses when eating a fine meal and the same applies to tasting spirits (whether this happens consciously or not).
Tasting spirits is, although similar, a different experience to tasting wine certainly if one hasn’t tried many neat spirits before then it could take some time adjusting your palate to the higher ABV strength.
It’s advisable to prep both your palate and the tasting room prior to your tasting. This means avoiding strong flavours/aromas like coffee, cigarettes, incense, perfume, deodorant, scented soaps/handwash etc. Spirits are also best tasted at room temperature as cooler temperatures could mask certain characteristics.
Water biscuits to clear your palate and lots of water to rinse your mouth is recommended and depending on how many spirits will be tasted perhaps a spitoon too!
Most importantly: Savour each moment and enjoy!
Often forgotten about when tasting new spirits is ‘sight’ as we automatically take in what a spirit looks like in the glass in front of us however a lot can be learned when appreciating the spirit’s look:
Colour indicates how long the liquid has been aged for and you can begin imagining it’s flavour profile.
Legs/Pearls, when moving the spirit within your glass you will see pearls falling down the sides, this indicates the consistency and weight or body of the liquid. Particularly with liqueurs or lower ABVs you can see they are much thicker and heavier than those of a high ABV.
Most of what we taste is through smell and this is an important step in tasting spirits, especially when it comes to high ABV spirits.
Pronounced spirits should be smelt at a slight distance (an inch or 2 away from your nose), to prevent alcohol burn of your nasal receptors that would otherwise effect the smell.
Our noses tend to have a more receptive side than the other, so try smelling the spirit with either side to see which works best for you.
Here is where we start getting to know the spirit better and can find out a lot about it’s profile.
Everyone’s taste/smell is different and aromas are, a lot of the time, very objective, however certain notes are typically agreed upon in groups. Share your thoughts with others as you might be surprised how much you agree upon.
I often find when tasting a spirit with someone who picks up on something I hadn’t before I can then immediately detect what they mean. Whether a placebo effect or the discovery of another layer that remained until that point a secret to me, it’s fascinating!
A step that might be irrelevant with other categories of spirits but one that I always observe when tasting agave spirits is touch.
Dab the tip of your finger in the liquid and gently rub it on the top of your hand. Agave spirits should evaporate almost immediately and should never leave a sticky or greasy layer on your skin.
This is also a great way of smelling the pure aromas of a Mezcal.
By allowing some liquid to evaporate on your skin you can then cup them around your mouth and nose and inhale, this way you will get the pure aromas that aren’t masked by the spirits ethanol content.
Perhaps the most important step is tasting the spirit!
Here it is very important to warm up and open your palate by taking a small sip and letting it evaporate on your tongue, you’ll find your mouth will start creating more saliva too.
Take another small sip and let this coat your tongue, breathe out through your nose, swallow and then exhale again through your mouth. Now your palate will be ready to explore the range of flavours and the slight nuances and layers to its character.
As with nosing spirits it’s great to share your experiences as you might be able to find flavours and layers you perhaps wouldn’t have noticed.
Get to know the liquid and come back to it after a few moments, as it will change due to being in a glass and therefore in contact with oxygen, also this gives your palate some time to adjust and so when you go back to tasting it you might have a different experience again.
Observe how the Mezcal finishes too, how long do the flavours linger? Does the character change? Does it keep changing? Is it a quick finish? Dry? Moreish? Explore and take note of the fine details.
Here’s a tasting wheel I created that shows some of the many flavours that one can find in agave spirits, there are millions more but here are what I feel the most important notes. Feel free to use this when tasting agave spirits, as it might help your discovery in certain flavours that might have otherwise been missed.
The words on the outside of the wheel are some of the origins of flavours in agave distillates. Environmental factors both before and after the harvest, during cooking, cooking methods, mezcaleros etc etc etc all effect flavour!