I’ve been thinking a lot about blind tasting spirits lately. I’m getting ready for a BIG DEAL certification, and one of its components is a blind tasting exam. In a blind tasting you are presented with unknown booze. You then taste it without any preconceptions to gather information about it. The ultimate goal is to know what kind of spirit you’re drinking, where in the world and how in the world it was made, how young/old it is, and what the brand is. So how to most effectively prepare? I’ve found some good resources (here are some reading materials that I found particularly helpful) and I really feel like I’m getting somewhere. Whether you’re a beverage industry pro, a spirits enthusiast, or just an average Jane or Juan looking for a cool party trick, here it is, how to blind taste spirits for fun and profit!
Prepare the location/Set the table for action:
Ultimately, you can blind taste straight out of the bottle in a dark arctic ice cave with a polar bear breathing its god-awful fish breath on you and you’ll still gain something so long as you are tasting with intention. However, it is helpful to have the proper tools and environment. Here is a list to help you achieve the ideal setting.
1. A well-lit, smell free room that is comfortable and free of distractions.
The arctic cave would not fit these criteria for a few reasons. The kitchen counter while your roommate is cooking an Indian curry dish while practicing on her piccolo also is less than ideal.
2. A surface upon which to set glasses, bottles and other tasting regalia.
Best to avoid the dining room table that your wife and her friends have sprawled their “Cards against Humanity” game all over while getting drunk on peat laden scotch.
3. The proper glassware. Tulip shaped glass or crystal is ideal. Wine glasses work well. (I like either of these glasses) Be sure there are no residual smells from washing/drying the glasses. Plastic can impart aromas that alter your tasting experience, so definitely avoid it.
The solo cups leftover from last night’s beer pong might hamper your results.
4. A spit cup. Boring, I know. Feel free to skip this step if you’re already at the top of your blind tasting game and just want to impress friends with your prowess. If, however, you haven’t gotten there yet (I know I haven’t), I highly encourage spitting. Intoxication can happen pretty quickly when you’re tasting spirits with an average of 45%abv/90prf* (link to proof post), and intoxication makes continuing with and learning from your tasting difficult. Starting your tasting practice at 3am just after drunkenly devouring Denny’s “Moons Over My Hammy” and right before hugging the toilet probably isn’t going to help you learn to pick up on the nuances between Rye whiskey and Bourbon whiskey.
5. Tasting wheels/diagrams/grids/charts. Having a list of the aromas/flavors you might find is incredibly helpful in training your brain to make the connections between what your nose is smelling, and where it has smelled that smell before. Grandma’s apple pie? Abuela’s hot chocolate? Connections can come from strange places. Cat litter, Aqua Net, rotting squash, your mind can take you to strange places, and all of them are legit when your tasting. Tasting wheels are a great visual guide for this. I like these for gin and whiskey.
6. Notepad. You don’t want to forget all of your tasting genius! Remember that time you nailed the brand on every spirit you tasted? No, you don’t, because you didn’t spit, so you were probably drunk, and didn’t take notes!
Now that you have your tasting spot all set up and ready for optimal results you can,
Prepare the booze: From my experience, between three and seven 1 oz tastes is the sweet spot. Less and you don’t have enough for comparison, more and your palate gets blown out. Anything goes here. You can choose to have each taste be from a different category of spirits (rum, vodka, whiskey, etc), or from closely related categories (Irish whiskey, bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey), you could taste from the same category, same distillery, or do vertical** or horizontal*** tastings. Let the booze be your oyster (you can blind taste those too, but that’s a post for somebody else’s blog . Make sure that the glasses are marked so that you can know what you were tasting when your done. The ideal situation is where you have someone present to put out the tastes for you, like in the case of performing this trick at a party. Your helper can put them on a piece of paper, with each glass in its own numbered spot (create this paper and link to it), corresponding to a list they have of what each number was. Or (I like this one a lot) they can use sticky notes, writing the name of the spirit on the top, then flipping it over and sticking it to the bottom of the glass. Just make sure they’re dark colored sticky notes, the writing shows right through the ubiquitous yellow ones. If you don’t have a helper, you can use this last method, then put the glasses on a tray and spin it around (gently!) or play 3 card monte with the glasses until you can’t remember where you started. I’ve done the latter A LOT. It’s effective. Blind tasting with a friend? Pour enough for two tastes into one glass, make sure these glasses are labeled, then mix them up. Put them in a row and mark each label with a number. Put the same numbers on empty glasses, then halve the spirits from the numbered glass into the empty glass. Got that? Now you’ve got your glasses of unknown spirits, time to taste!!!
Stop, look and… listen?!: Actually, no tasting yet. Also no listening (though it could be said that some spirits talk to you). First you look at the spirit. Hold it up to the light. Is there any sediment? Is it clear? If it isn’t clear, what color is it? . Gently roll the glass so that you can watch the contents wash back down the sides of the glass. Do the “legs” move slow, creating broad sheets of booze instead of thin more fast moving trickles? note of what you see, these are your first clues to what’s in the glass. Now that you’ve seen all you can see, time to taste!!!
Stop, still don’t taste!: (Heh, I’m enjoying toying with you this way.) Now you smell what’s in the glass. This is a critical step. Put your nose close, but not IN the glass. That alcohol can, metaphorically speaking, singe your nose hairs right off! Especially if you’re smelling a high proof spirit. So just put it close. You can roll the booze around in the glass a bit but swirling or any other aggressive movement of the alcohol isn’t helpful. Leave that to those wine drinking types. What do you smell? Is it fruity? Woody? Does it remind you of oatmeal? Toffee? Is it spicy? Record your findings if the situation is conducive to it. These notes will help you later.
Time to taste!!! For real!: Chug Chug Chug Chug! JK, don’t chug. Take a sip, swirl it all around your mouth, then spit it out. This prepares your palate to taste accurately, getting rid of flavors from your last meal, your morning coffee, your toothpaste, etc. Now take another sip. Roll this around in your mouth, spit it out, then breathe in through slightly parted lips. Note the flavors of course, but also the texture of the spirit. Is it smooth, thin, waxy? All of these are good indicators of what you’re drinking. Also note how much alcohol you’re perceiving. Even a novice taster can tell the difference between a 30 proof (15% abv) liqueur and a 114 proof (57% abv navy strength gin. Once you’ve tasted through all of your spirits, go through and smell and taste them again in a different order. You will probably find some surprises.
Tell us what your drinking!: Now put it all together, the look, smell and taste, and tell us what you’re drinking! Wait, you can’t do it? You need some more information, don’t you? Stay tuned for part 2 of Party Tricks, “but what does it all mean?!”
**Vertical tasting: Tasting different age statements of the same product.
***Horizontal tasting: Obviously a sex act. Can also refer to a tasting where all the spirits are from the same category with the same age statement.