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How To Taste Spirits For Maximum Enjoyment

Updated on May 11, 2012

The other day I was looking for information on how to taste spirits for maximum enjoyment. I was wondering if you taste spirits the same way you taste wine, that is, using the four S's - see, sniff, sip, savor, - and yes, you do. However, there are a couple of crucial differences, which - if not taken into account, - will ruin the whole experience and leave you clueless about the drink.

Now, when I was looking at Google results for 'how to taste spirits,' the first page was littered with videos and articles that provide some information, and even warn of the dangers of not tasting spirits the right way, but none of them gives quite enough information on how to taste spirits for really maximum enjoyment.

I will now walk you through the process and also teach you some tricks that - I'm quite sure - you will not learn elsewhere online. All this information comes from Prof. Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine, as taught in the course 'The Everyday Guide to Spirits and Cocktails: Tastes and Traditions.'

Crucial Points

Some DOs and DON'Ts to keep in mind for practical reasons. (And also to look more professional ;)

  • Don't swirl your drink like you would swirl wine.
  • Don't inhale closely.
  • Open your mouth when sniffing.
  • Wait 30 secs after the initial sip.
  • Don't get too much in your mouth.
  • Don't suck in air like you would with wine.
  • Recommended: add some water to your drink.

How To Taste Spirits Using the Four S's

  • See: A spirit’s color tells us about what it will likely smell and taste like. Brown spirits will almost always smell and taste of spices, caramel, vanilla or any other oak-induced aromas and flavors. White spirits will have no oak-induced aromas and flavors, they will be sweeter and fruitier.
  • Sniff: First, it is important NOT to swirl the drink before sniffing, because it will activate the alcohol and make your nose burn. If you don't want to anesthetize your nose and smell nothing afterwards, don't inhale deeply. You will have the fullest experience if you sniff by opening your mouth a little bit and inhaling through both your mouth and nose.

    If it is not completely against your better judgment, you can put a drop of the spirit on your palms and then rub them together. This causes the alcohol to evaporate and what you are left with is the pure essence of the spirit. This is very recommended.
  • Sip: Spirits have an alcohol volume of 40% or more, so the first time you sip it will come as a shock to your palate. Your palate needs to be calibrated before you can finally enjoy your drink. So take a little sip, no more than a half teaspoon of the drink and wait about 30 seconds. After this you can take another sip and experience the richness of the spirit.

    Don't suck in air while sipping as you would with wine, because it will also activate the alcohol and makes your tongue burn.
  • Savor: There are three phases to savoring the spirit: First, the attack, that is the first couple of seconds after the initial sip. This is when the most volatile components come in contact with your receptors. Second, the mid-palate, with another set of flavors reaching your palate. Third, the finish, with yet another set of flavors lingering on your palate.

    When we talk about the complexity of a spirit, we refers to the number of different flavors you get with the spirit. Higher-quality spirits provide longer flavors on your palate. This is called a spirit’s length.

When you first taste a new spirit, it is recommended to add a few drops of water to the glass. This additional water helps dilute the alcohol burn and enables you to concentrate more of the flavors. This is why some people drink spirits “on the rocks.” The melting ice mutes some of the alcohol, but it also chills the spirit allowing for a smoother, more palatable experience.

Finally, I suggest that you do the above process will each and every kind of spirit. There is a myth in circulation that some spirits like Vodka do not really possess rich aromas and flavors. This is a myth, you'll see for yourself. Suggested exercise: compare wheat/grain- and potato-based vodkas this way to discover a world of differences.


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    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 6 years ago from Hungary

      Have a nice keeping at it. :)

    • Lateral3 profile image

      Lateral3 6 years ago

      What have I been missing. I am really looking forward to putting this tutorial into practice. Practice of course makes perfect; and I'll keep at it until I get right.


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