Book your flight! A guide to tasting spirits side-by side.
Before I fell in love with the world of making cocktails, I was a wine educator. The approach that I took to teaching people about wine involved lots of side by side tasting, and I came to believe that it was the absolute best way to develop a flavor “library” in our heads. This is an important concept because it’s what allows us to begin to know the taste of a particular wine or spirit as familiarly as we know the taste of common things like coffee and tea. The best part of all is that you don’t need to necessarily be in a bar or restaurant to do it; in fact, hosting a tasting at home is one of the most fun and economical ways to learn about spirits. You just need to grab some friends, make a few appetizers, and decide on what bottles you’d like to taste, the cost of which you’ll hopefully share.
There are several different ways to conduct a tasting so the first step is to choose which one you’re interested in doing. In a horizontal tasting, you compare spirits that fall into the same category. What you see in the photo above is a flight of 4 different Amari: Nonino, Montenegro, Ramazzotti, and Averna. They are all similar, but have different nuances in their flavor profiles that you’ll be able to pick up when you taste them side by side. Once you become familiar with their taste, you’ll know whether you’d order a drink that’s made with them, or you’ll know which cocktails to use them in at home. That’s powerful knowledge!
A vertical tasting is one in which you compare a flight of spirits from the same producer that differ usually in terms of age or, in the case above, in terms of what’s in them. Obviously those are bottles of yellow and green Chartreuse in the photo, 2 ingredients that are widely used in cocktails everywhere. They both have personalities that are equally strong, but noticeably different, and both bottles are fairly expensive. It’s good to learn how some of the more costly spirits taste because cocktail prices often reflect their ingredients. There’s nothing worse than ordering a $15 drink in a bar only to find that you really don’t like it. An example of an aged-based tasting would be sampling 3 different Scotch whiskies like a Dalmore 12, 15, and 18. I don’t have all 3 of those at home to take a picture for you; how I wish I did! In either of the cases I’ve mentioned, tasting them in a flight will help you to learn how spirits are the same, and how they differ, allowing you to catalog them in your head for future reference.
You’re not restricted to only these 2 types of tastings. In a general tasting, you make up the flight that you’d like to sample; the world of spirits is wide open to you and you come up with the rules. Maybe you want to compare 3 different types or producers of whiskey or gin. Or how about sampling bourbon and rye side by side? Or local spirits as compared to more well known producers? Again it’s totally up to you. Finally, a blind tasting is one in which you are the only person who knows what everyone is drinking. This forces your guests to consider the spirit itself rather than make presumptions based on the label. You’ll either need to cover the bottles with something, or transfer them into decanters in order to keep their identities secret.
When conducting any kind of tasting, you’re focusing on 4 things: color, aroma, taste, and finish. I think the first 3 are fairly obvious; you’re basicly looking, smelling, and tasting what’s in your glass and coming up with some fun adjectives to describe your findings. The finish is just a term for what happens after you actually taste something. Is it warm, or downright burning in your mouth, throat, or chest? Or is it smooth or sweet? How long do those sensations stay around? All of these kinds of questions pertain to a spirit’s finish. You simply want to pay attention and make a note of what you’re feeling.
Finally, there are some things you’ll need to have a tasting at home:
- The spirits themselves. Decide on what you think you want to taste and make up a flight.
- Some will friends or family members. Hopefully they’ll be willing to share expenses.
- Food! Tasting makes you surprisingly hungry.
- Water for in between each spirit you taste. It helps to cleanse the palate. Some people also prefer a neutral cracker or a baguette slice, so you might want to offer both.
- Decent glassware. I loathe drinking from plastic unless there’s no other alternative. Always remember that bar and restaurant supply stores will often have great prices or closeout deals on basic barware.
- Pens and paper for notes. There are some tasting placemats available online with numbered circles on them to help you keep track of things, if you want to get that fancy. Or you can print something similar out at home.
- Jiggers for measuring out your spirits.
- Some ice or water with an eyedropper just in case you have a guest that might want to dilute what he or she is tasting.
The most important thing to remember is that there really are no rules. This is an opportunity to gain some great knowledge and have lots of fun doing it. Happy tasting!