FUNDAMENTALS OF TASTING
First, stop expecting your taste to be the same as everyone else's. Taste is as personal when it comes to spirits and cocktails as it is with food. Nobody complains that you like Brussels sprouts about as much as a body-covering rash. We take it for granted that we will have differences of opinion about food. But admit to liking "blush" wines and you're immediately labeled a bumpkin. Taste is nothing more than, well, a matter of personal taste.
Yes, there do exist objective - more or less - observations that make it possible for people to compare and contrast various beverages, styles and even brands. But in order to do that we have to collectively decide what words we're going to use to describe beverages. And then we'll have to decide which words are most appropriate to specific beverages; that will require that people taste everything they can because in the end it's broad firsthand experience that allows that comparison.
We at BAR believe strongly that blind tasting is the only way to taste honestly. Blind tasting concentrates your senses. When you have a lot of experience and when you know what a product is, you immediately know how it's supposed to taste. The problem then is that most of us are human and we tend to use words we have traditionally used to describe that beverage or brand because to do otherwise would be to admit that we are being inconsistent tasters.
If you taste with the label facing you, you'll know the identity of the beverage but then you won't learn anywhere near as much as if you weren't aware of the identity. Nuances, differences, even large-scale changes in production methods will mostly go unnoticed because your senses won't be as keenly focused. Even the best taster is subject to prejudice. The only way to be sure is to taste under blind conditions.
Once you have tasted three or four top gin brands, when any new brand is offered, your best course is to taste it alongside one or two of the brands you already know. In that way, you'll have a quick frame of reference to tell a customer that Plymouth gin is, perhaps, more citrusy than Hendricks, or less juniper-intense than Tanqueray. Perhaps even more importantly, you can guide yourself and your colleagues when it comes time to create a cocktail from the gin. After all, bartenders are supposed to be the creative kind of people who know how to adjust a recipe to suit a customer or to suit the brand.
THE NOSE KNOWS BEST
Smell is our most primal sense. It's the only one of our senses, for instance, that instigates the strangely compelling feeling of déjà vu. Two moist membranes located on either side of the nose beneath our cheeks collect data from aromatic molecules that land on them when we inhale the aromas of beverage alcohol or anything, for that matter. These sticky membranes/organs have about 350 sensors that send data directly to our brain.
Not surprisingly, here's the biggest secret of tasting: it's not really tasting as much as it is smelling. Over two thirds of the characteristic aromas and flavors of any brand are all in the nose. In wine tasting, we could probably state that almost all of it is in the nose, but one of the strong differences between differing spirits is the alcohol level. You can smell that difference, but you can't really discover if the spirit is poorly cut and hot, or well cut and rich and textured, and you won't know if the spirit is in balance, without putting some in your mouth and rolling it around.
We know that some of you are saying, "I can't taste. I don't have a good enough palate." Really? You didn't know after that steak was served to you last night if it was good or not? You don't really care which beer you have at the end of shift because they all taste the same? You'll gladly accept a bruised old apple in place of a crisp, snappy one because you can't tell the difference? Of course not. You are a good taster. You, like all of us with any discipline, just need a bit of guidance in expressing your skill. Most people simply haven't had to apply words to the task yet. So start by putting two spirits next to each other. Start slowly by trying a gin next to a white rum. Take a whiff and by going back and forth you can look for the following attributes:
Citrus (which citrus?)
Pepper (they both have that)
Depending upon how sensitive you are to various flavors and aromas, you might find that both are very peppery and both have some herbal aromas. In all likelihood, the rum will have the more dominant notes of vanilla, coconut, molasses, and perhaps even nuttiness. The gin should express aromas of pine or evergreen, citrus, floral notes, herbs and perhaps many others things: most gins have at least a dozen botanicals (such as flowers, spices, fruits, bark, that sort of thing) added to them.
But each person's experience will be slightly different because, in addition to having different preferences and different histories, we actually have different sensitivities to many flavors and aromas. So, we're supposed to taste things differently and like different things. The trick is, as professionals, we ought to be able to tell our customers and colleagues how a brand is likely to compare to other brands. In order to do that, you've got to have experience across a broad spectrum and we suggest that you liberally collect other people's ideas as you go, so that you can learn to convey to other people what you are tasting in understandable terminology. Let's get started.
DILUTED OR STRAIGHT?
Most professionals prefer to taste spirits just as they come from the bottle, full strength; others like to cut the bottle strength in half with water.
Our early experience with most of these spirits was behind a bar and if we were going to know how they smelled and tasted, mixing them with water would at a minimum take too much time. So, taste first at bottle proof. Once you've determined how they smell and taste when poured straight from the bottle, then you can sort out what mixing does to them.
The words you choose can be your own, of course, but if they're too personal, then others aren't going to know what you mean, are they? And the whole point of having words to use when describing flavors and aromas is so that you can communicate to others how a given drink will smell and taste. That way, they'll know if they want to order some.
In each of the spirit categories, we will provide you with some ideas for general descriptors that you should look for when you taste different brands in those categories.
The Five fundamental flavors
Bitter (most of us are the most sensitive to this fundamental taste)
Umami (the fifth basic taste that is defined as a savory sensation that's best demonstrated by things such as parmesan cheese, soy sauce, shitake mushrooms)