How to Taste Spirits

How to Taste Spirits

The way we talk about spirits can sometimes feel a little intimidating. What does dry summer taste like? What about gin with an herbaceous quality on the middle of the palate? Are we speaking a different language? What does it all even mean?

If you’ve ever wondered how we’re coming up with this stuff, don’t sweat it – you’re not alone. But while the lexicon surrounding booze can seem inaccessible, it really just comes down to two basic senses: smell and taste.

Straight up or on the rocks, here’s how to talk about drinks.


Nose

When we talk about the nose of a spirit, we’re not being facetious – we’re straight up talking about how it smells. And while there are some best practices to abide by when sniffing your spirits, for the most part it really is as simple as taking a whiff. Here are a few tried and true steps to good first impressions:

First, choose your vessel. Using a curved, tulip-shaped glass helps funnel the delicate aromas to your nose. Have a wine glass on hand? That will do just fine.

Then, pour a small tipple and smell slowly. While wine tastings start with taking a deep sniff of the glass, spirits require a little more finesse and care. Because our gin and vodka are high proof (90 and 80 proof, respectively), you’re better off slowly raising the glass to your nose and smelling gently so as not to anesthetize your nostrils. Open your mouth slightly while you smell to allow more surface area for the alcohol itself to dissipate. Then, take note of what aromas you notice first, whether that’s citrus, herbs, or a bright punch of sumac. Jot it all down in a notebook, and take some time returning to your glass before your first sip.

If you feel like your nose needs a refresh, take a whiff of some coffee grounds before keeping on and carrying on.

Palate

Here’s where we get to the heart of the matter: how does the spirit taste? From the second the liquid hits your tongue, you’ve embarked on a gustatory journey. We like to start by tasting the liquid neat at room temp, and then diluting with water or ice as necessary. Keep water at the ready, but avoid drinking or eating anything else in the hour leading up to your tasting so your palate is as clean as can be.

Once you’re sipping, it’s really all about slowing down and paying attention. Start out small, taking a baby sip to warm up your palate before properly tasting. Then, breathe in a little through your mouth while you’re tasting, just as you would with wine. Take note of the botanicals that jump out at you first. These are what you taste on the front of your palate. If you smelled a bright squeeze of citrus, see if lemon or grapefruit come through when you taste. Then, as the spirit makes its way across your tastebuds, ask yourself what new flavors begin to reveal themselves. Is there an unexpected hit of spicy cardamom? Bitter, grassy notes on your rear palate? Write it all down, and remember there are no right or wrong answers here. Taste is personal, and our Proustian memories shape our perceptions. Let yourself be surprised.

Finish

The finish of a spirit is essentially a grown-up way of saying “aftertaste.” Here, we talk about the flavors that stay and linger, the complex notes that only come out once your glass is empty. Maybe it's mushrooms, or long pepper, or the cereal sweetness of wheat and chamomile. Whatever it is, savor it before going in for your next sip. And if you’re switching spirits? Drink some water and take 25.

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