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How to evaluate spirits like a pro

A juror’s guide to decoding spirits, developing a nuanced palate and enjoying the best that the world of alcohol has to offer

Understand the appearance of a spirit. (Istockphoto)

By Rojita Tiwari

LAST PUBLISHED 09.11.2023  |  03:33 PM IST

Have you ever wondered how spirit experts differentiate between a single malt and a blended scotch, vodka and gin, and whisky from brandy just by sniffing them from a glass? They have masterful understanding of each style and type, backed by years of experience.

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Before we proceed, here’s a personal anecdote. The first time I was invited to judge at an international spirits competition, Spirits Selection by CMB, was in 2015. An interesting fact about this 25-year-old competition is that it travels to a different spirit-producing region in the world every year.

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In 2015, it was held in one of the famous Baijiu-producing regions in China. I had already spent nine years in the editorial department of an alco-bev magazine, travelled to some iconic drink destinations, and had tasted my fair share of spirits. However, nothing had prepared me for it.

Baijiu, an indigenous white spirit category, is relatively unknown outside of China. Hence, prior to the competition, jury members from around 50 countries were sent a box along with tasting guidelines to prepare their palates. At the competition, we were tasked with tasting and evaluating around 1000 spirits in three days. Since China was the host country, a significant number of Baijiu samples were sent to the competition, making this preview exercise necessary.

I opened the sample box, which contained tubes of eight styles of Baijiu with different labels such as light aroma, sauce aroma, rice aroma, strong aroma, and more. It took a fair amount of reading, researching, practice, and patience with the learning process to appreciate the varieties, types, and styles of this native drink.

This format of learning holds true for a drinks enthusiast keen to enhance their palate and knowledge. To begin with, have a basic know-how about different types and styles of spirits. Then polish your assessment skills by understanding the appearance (colour/sight), flavour (aroma and tasting) and the overall mouthfeel. Here are five ways to learn about spirits like a pro.

Master the basics
Learning about the raw materials and production process of a particular spirit is a good way to start. For example, whisky can be made from malted or un-malted barley, corn, rice, or even sugarcane molasses (as was the case in India earlier). In Scotland, whisky is made from malted barley, while in America (Bourbon), it is made from corn and/or rye. So, when you have a glass of Scotch whisky and a glass of Bourbon whiskey, the difference in both should be evident in their aromas. Bourbon whiskey is aged in virgin American oak casks, while Scotch is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels. The first variance in the nose comes from the raw materials used in making the spirits. Secondary and tertiary aromas are derived from the production and ageing process. If you add a third glass to this tasting with brandy in it, what you should smell first is the raw material, which is grapes or any other fruit depending on the style. If you are serious about this, consider taking a course on spirits appreciation.

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Practice makes perfect
After getting your basics right, continue to practice. Every time you sit down to taste, keep a spittoon or a paper cup next to you. Spitting the drink is an integral step in assessing a particular spirit. With practice, professionals can taste and evaluate around 30 spirits in a day. They can only do that by spitting out the drinks every time they taste. While evaluating, the stages of tasting include seeing, swirling, smelling, sipping, and spitting. These steps are necessary indicators of variety, ageing and quality of the drink. What should you look for? Check if the sample is true to its category and whether it showcases a perfect harmony of flavour and alcohol. Balance is the key.

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Set parameters to assess
Sit down with a few samples (poured in identical glasses without your knowledge of the brand). Ask yourself: Is the drink typical of its category? Does it show authenticity or genuineness? How would you rate it (out of 100) in terms of appearance, aroma, taste, and finish? What is your overall impression of the particular sample? Once you have that system in place, you are good to go.

Experience more
Attending a tasting event or drinks festival is a great way to train your palate and get exposed to a variety of drinks. You get to meet drink specialists, makers, or enthusiasts who may help you expand your knowledge.

Travel and drink
One of the best ways to learn is from the source. If you are an avid traveller, become invested in exploring various destinations famous for drinks. Take a whisky trail in Scotland, visit the iconic Bourbon distilleries in the US, plan a trip to Mexico to visit the city of Tequila for this iconic spirit, and Oaxaca for mezcal. Next time you travel to Japan, make sure to visit one of the sake breweries or plan a trip to the famous Suntory distilleries. Look at how your favourite tipple is made and appreciate the nuances.

Rojita Tiwari is a drinks writer, educator and consultant based in Mumbai.

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