Steadily increasing sales of spirits has prompted many operators to conduct group tastings for their staff and clientele. As is true for wine and beer tastings, procedural matters play a huge role in achieving the desired results. To that end, here are things to consider.
• LOGISTICS — Spirit tastings are best conducted in a well-ventilated, well-lit room with participants seated at white clothed tables, preferably in a row, classroom style. Each table should be set with spit buckets, napkins, water and plates with bread, crackers, cubed cheese or sliced apples as palate changes.
• POURING PROCEDURES — One advantage of a blind tasting is the opportunity of evaluating products stripped of their packaging and marketing. Therefore take measures to ensure participants have no knowledge of what's being tasted and in what order.
Like red wine, spirits need exposure to oxygen to fully release their aromatics. Samples should optimally be poured about 10-15 minutes prior to the tasting, after which the glasses need to be covered. Water glass covers, cardboard coasters or convex piecesof glass do the trick.
Sampling portions typically range between 1 and 1 1/2 ounces. They're to be poured in the order in which the participants will taste them, thus ensuring that the last samples poured are the last spirits tasted.
• GLASSWARE — Preferably the glassware selected should be 4-5 ounces in capacity and have a chimney-like opening, a shape that hastens the release of a spirit's aromatics. Glasses must be clean, dry and odor-free.
• TASTING PROCEDURES — For best results, spirits should be sampled side by side with other brands of the same type, for example, wheated vodkas, vatted malts or blanco 100% agave tequilas. To avoid confusion, mark the base of each glass with the sample's position number.
Participants should commence tasting at the same time by removing the covers from the glasses and nosing each sample. After carefully assessing their bouquet and constituent aromas, the individual should return to the first sample in the flight and begin evaluating appearance.
The next step is to take a sip and swirl the spirit throughout the inside of the mouth before spitting it out, at which point one judges mouthfeel, flavor and finish.
• ASSIGNING VALUES — So how do you place relative values to the observations about each spirit? While methods vary, one approach is to assign a maximum score to the 5 qualities being assessed for a total of 100 points. For instance, appearance (max 5 pts), aromatics (max 35 pts), mouthfeel (max 5 pts), flavor (max 35 pts) and finish (max 20 pts).
Spirit tastings are fun and enlightening. So once again, it's sniff, sip, swirl and spit. Rinse and repeat.
BEFORE GETTING STARTED, you'll want to give your guests an idea of what they should be looking for in the spirits they'll be tasting. Getting everyone on the same page—so to speak—will make it a more enjoyable and educational experience for all involved. To that end, here are some characteristics to look for when appraising the merits of spirits.
• APPEARANCE — A spirit's appearance is important in part because consumers buy with their eyes. Judging appearance includes assessing clarity, color and whether the spirit is free of particulates.
• AROMATICS — Olfactory is the most heightened of our senses, so much so that the aromas you detect are the flavors you'll taste. Best results are obtained by keeping the nose just above the mouth of the glass and the mouth open slightly, which induces the aromatics to roll past the palate.
• MOUTHFEEL — What impression do you get of the spirit on the tongue? Is it thin and light-bodied, oily and viscous or full-bodied and silky smooth?
• TASTE — After spitting, immediately breathe in through the mouth and brace for what hopefully will be a flood of flavor. What are those flavors reminiscent of—herbs, cocoa, vanilla, ripe red fruit, citrus zest, spices or pepper?
• FINISH — Like the lingering scent of a perfume, a spirit's departure should satisfy the senses and soothe the mind. Was the finish clean and crisp or long and flavorful? Pleasantly warm or harsh and fiery?