© Antonis Achilleos
Tasting 30 or 40 wines in the course of an afternoon is no big deal for me anymore, but when faced with tasting 50 gins (for “An American Gin Renaissance” in the November issue), I had to take my time. I found that at most, I could taste about six different gins in one sitting—the alcohol was too strong, the juniper too palate-walloping.
Beyond quantity limitations, tasting spirits requires quite a different approach from tasting wine.
Here are a few tips that will prevent you from 1) burning your nose hairs; 2) suffering from palate fatigue; and 3) winding up too sleepy or loopy to return to your desk.
1. Taste spirits from a rocks glass. A wine glass will give you a big, focused alcoholic punch in the face. Have a glass of water on hand, too.
2. Don’t just shove your nose in the glass and take a deep whiff. The alcohol will essentially ruin your ability to smell anything all. Instead, swirl the glass and waft it past your nose, like you’d do in high school chemistry. When tasting gin, you ought to be able to detect some of the botanicals used. In most cases, juniper will be most prominent, but you might also notice distinct citrus, floral or herbal notes. (Should you smell aromas like chlorine, floor glue, rubbing alcohol or swamp water like I did while vetting bottles, I’m sorry to say this next step won’t be very pleasant either.)
3. Take a small sip and swish it around in your mouth. Spit. Notice the flavors on your palate. Odds are, they’ll be similar to what you smelled. I found that in tasting these gins, I was able to pick out more specific flavors (licorice, lavender, wintermint) from tasting than from smelling.
4. Now add a few drops of water to your glass and do this routine again. The water will dilute the alcohol a bit, making the aromas and flavors even easier to pickout.
5. Have a good few sips of water before tasting the next one, to refresh your palate.
For the ultimate final test, pick your favorite, add some dry vermouth and a lemon twist and test it out in a classic martini, like this one from top mixologist Jim Meehan.