Tasting Spirits

Every now and again, I am given samples of gin or whisky to taste, either for review or to give feedback to the producer. I also get bookings for gin-tasting events, and I have to check out the best spirits to provide in bars I work for. Spirit tasting has its own structure and 'ritual,' just like wine tasting does, and many of the questions I'm asking about the drink are the same as I ask about wine. Many readers will have taken part in wine tastings and know what those questions are. However, there are particular considerations with spirits that you may not be aware of, and I'd like to share my approach. 

You can buy specialist glasses that are designed for spirit tasting if you like, but wine tasting glasses are just as good, or you can use a small brandy glass. The key issue is that they should be wider at the bottom of the glass and tapered towards the nose. Many glasses marketed as spirit glasses flare slightly at the rim, but this is not absolutely essential. Obviously, with spirits, you don't want to be drinking large quantities, so a small glass is best. Have a jug of cool water to hand, as well as any mixer recommended by the distiller. 

It's good to scribble a few notes as you go along, because it helps to go back to things you had noticed earlier. I like to taste with a companion, too, so we can share insights, bounce ideas off each other and help one another find the right descriptions for the comparisons we want to make.

I did say scribble!

I always use a two- or three-stage approach to tasting spirits: first neat, then with water and finally with any potential mixer. Tasting is about analysing the information of your senses and trying to find words to describe what you see, smell, taste and feel. For most of us, the sense of smell is going to provide more information than any other. You may not be used to this level of analysis, but you will find descriptions if you dig around your head for them - no suggestion is wrong: drinks tasting is all about communication of an individual experience, especially communicating it to yourself.

Stage one: neat


Pour a small amount of your selected spirit into the glass, neat. Never fill the glass beyond its widest point, even with a small glass. Look through the spirit and move it about the glass. Is it clear? How would you describe the colour? Try to be as specific as possible - would you call it amber, burnt orange, deep maroon...? Some unfiltered spirits may have small particles in them. Comment to yourself on this.


The first thing your nose picks up when smelling neat spirit is the alcohol, so you need to get it used to that first. Take a few short sniffs over the glass, then a nice, deep sniff. This should get your olfactory equipment habituated to strong alcohol and enable you to start noticing other aromas. Obviously, we can never say a drink smells of something unless it is actually one of the ingredients. What we're trying to do is identify what it smells like. While it might be true to identify that this or that gin tastes of lemon zest, it's probably a more helpful description to say it smells citrussy. You can then nuance your description by analysing that citrus aroma further: is it a sweet aroma or a sharp one, more like lemon or more like sherbet, are there other citrus-like aromas present, such as blossom, lime or bergamot...? Be creative and expansive in your choice of descriptions - every detail helps. Remember that you are drawing comparisons, not commenting on ingredients, so it's perfectly acceptable to compare the aroma to something you wouldn't ever want to drink. Many whiskies can be said to smell like tar, seaweed or beeswax. 


Still working with the neat spirit, take a small sip. Alcohol is likely to be the predominant experience, especially with neat gin or cask-strength whisky. On your second sip, ask yourself how sweet the drink tastes. Is there a particular acidity about it, or do you get any drying sensation in your mouth? Which of the aromas you noticed earlier is now confirmed or further nuanced in the tasting? Run some spirit around your mouth and then breathe out through your nose. Are there any aromas you had previously missed?

Stage two: with water

Now add a good splash of water to the drink. By diluting the alcohol, this will kill any burning sensation and open up the layers of flavour. Repeat the processes of stage one, pushing your mind further to analyse the information of your senses of sight, smell, taste and texture. Particularly with gin, you will taste in far more detail when water is added.

Stage three (optional): with mixer

If the drink is one that is generally served mixed, or one for which the producer suggests a particular mix, pour yourself another measure and mix as recommended. Do not add ice, though, as the compounds that give flavour and aroma are less volatile at lower temperatures. Repeat the three processes of stage one with this new mix and note any differences. Which aromas and flavours are enhanced by the mixer, and which lost? How are the flavours and aromas of the mixer complimentary to the spirit? Does it need the extra sugar, acidity, spice or bitterness that the mixer brings? Would you drink it again in this form?

Next week, I'll review a special release whisky from The Lakes Distillery, based on the notes photographed in this post.


  1. Fascinating process. I look forward to reading the review in the next blog.


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