There’s an art to analyzing booze using only your senses. Mastering it takes lots of dedication and attention to detail. But more than anything else, it takes practice. You have to drink a ton of wine, beer and spirits, which sounds like loads of fun—and it can be. But when your job is to taste alcohol, there’s a balance beam to walk. How do you stay informed without getting impaired?
Enter spit tasting, the act of tasting without actually ingesting booze. Yes, not only is it possible but most of the time it’s recommended. We gathered a panel of wine, spirits and beer experts to break it down step-by-step.
Meet the Panel
Yannick Benjamin: Born into a family of French restaurateurs, Benjamin was destined from birth to make his mark on the NYC hospitality scene. An Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers with stints at such legendary restaurants as Felidia, Jean-Georges, L’Atelier, Le Cirque and at The Ritz-Carlton under his belt, Benjamin is one of the top wine pros in the city and is currently head sommelier at The University Club of New York. After a 2003 car accident that left him paralyzed, he went on to co-found Wheeling Forward, a nonprofit benefiting disabled New Yorkers, as well as charitable wine event Wine on Wheels to raise funding in support of the organization.
Danielle Benke: After a decade working in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska, Benke found herself moving up the ranks of Hawaii’s most beloved brewing company. Today, she serves as “brewer 1” for Kona Brewing Co. and is a proud member of her local chapter of the Pink Boots Society, an organization dedicated to supporting women in the beer industry.
Christian DiNello: A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, DiNello has spent the past two years as a member of The NoMad Hotel’s elite team of sommeliers in New York City.
Audrey Formisano: After landing in Mexico from Marseille 15 years ago, Formisano decided to pursue a certification from the Association of Mexican Sommeliers. Today, she’s the resident tequila sommelier of Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa.
Lacy Hawkins: Hawkins is synonymous with the powerful rise of the female bar community worldwide. As a NoMad alum and 2016 Speed Rack champion, she has made a name for herself among the elite. She now represents Monkey 47 gin as the national brand ambassador.
Allen Smith: After more than two decades with Mount Gay rum, master blender Smith, a native of Barbados, is part of the brand’s DNA. He holds a degree in biochemistry and microbiology from the Institute of Biology in England.
Jackie Summers: Published author, entrepreneur, public speaker, voice of industry equality, and bona fide blender are just a few of the titles you’ll find on Summers’ résumé, along with a long list of accolades such as one of the 50 Most Influential in Brooklyn Food by Brooklyn magazine and recognitions for his own small-batch spirit brand, Sorel Artisanal liqueur, via his company, Jack from Brooklyn.
Amy Thurmond: From Jean-Georges’ Spice Market to Andrew Carmellini’s Little Park and Evening Bar, Amy Thurmond has made her way around the crème de la crème of New York City’s dining and drinking scene. She’s currently the brand ambassador for Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG and the head sommelier for Leuca at The William Vale in NYC.
1. Know When to Spit
Benjamin: “Personally, when I’m in a professional setting, I always make sure to have the discipline to spit. A lot of what I get from the wine is on the nose, but I like to keep it swirling around my palate to feel the texture along with the acid. I don’t think that it’s within our culture to take time to smell the wine and let our olfactory senses go to work, as they are extremely powerful.”
DiNello: “At large tastings, where you can be tasting anywhere from 20 to 150 wines, palate fatigue is not the only thing to worry about. Tasting notes can start to go a little off the rails, and we all want to remember what we’ve tasted. My M.O. at these tastings is to spit everything until I’ve gotten around to all of the wines I want to taste, then I drink a bit of what I enjoyed most. I’ll also spit when I just want to stay sharp for the day ahead, as tastings can be very early, or if I’m still feeling yesterday’s festivities.”
Hawkins: “If I’m tasting multiple wines or spirits at the same time, I will always spit. If it’s just one, I will usually indulge in a sip or two but spit all the other tastes. For me, it really comes down to time and place. If it’s the middle of the day at a spirits expo, I will spit everything I sample. However, if it’s evening and a friend wants me to come taste some great spirits they collected during their travels, I will most likely enjoy every sip to the fullest.”
Smith: “Tasting is a very individual process. Some people can’t taste without swallowing the liquid, and then there are some who can swallow very little and still make an assessment. It really depends on your experience. The more experienced you are, the less liquid you’ll need to imbibe. Usually if there are around 20 samples, I’d likely spit, especially with clearer spirits. You can’t consume all of those samples and still maintain the integrity of your tasting apparatus.”
Thurmond: “Frankly, my decision to spit is to keep my senses sharp. Spitting also helps me fully experience the wine and all of its properties such as acid, texture and body. I think an everyday consumer should spit when they’re trying to learn wine and have the time to thoroughly taste the wine. To taste wine slowly and deliberately is to truly experience the wine. If you’re just trying to enjoy a bottle over dinner, spitting may not be necessary. But if there’s a bottle that you want to remember—the way it smells and the tasting notes—then spitting is a good idea.”
2. Lean on Sight and Smell
Benjamin: “In my personal opinion, if you can concentrate on the nose, you will have gotten a lot of aromas already, and the palate will be a confirmation of it all.”
Benke: “For me, tasting is a multisensory process that starts with the eyes. Raise your glass and really look at the beer. Note its color, consistency and head. Next, I give it a little swirl. This allows aroma and slight nuances to be released and loosens and stimulates carbonation all while testing head retention. From there, it’s all about the smell. (Ninety to 95 percent of what you experience is through your sense of smell.) Stick your nose in there. Take a few quicks sniffs with your mouth closed, then with your mouth open. Agitate again if you need. Notice what you smell. What does it remind you of?”
DiNello: “The best way to taste a wine or spirit without swallowing is to make sure that the flavor covers every bit of your senses. I usually start by inhaling deeply through my nose (you’ll want to forgo this part if the spirit is over 20 percent), sometimes for more than two or three breaths, and then sip and swish violently before spitting. As I exhale after the liquid leaves my lips, I’m noticing how the flavors begin and develop through the breath. You’ll first get the obvious notes, but as you peel those layers back and dig deeper into the flavor and aroma, flip through the flavor Rolodex in your head.”
Summers: “Before I taste, I cleanse my nasal palate by sniffing room-temperature tap water—a trick I learned from Privateer rum president and head distiller Maggie Campbell.”
3. Consider the Glassware
Formisano: “The glass that we use is the Riedel Vinum Tequila. Riedel is famous for the design of its wine glasses and created a special glass for tequila to fully capture the flavors and aroma.”
4. Envelop the Palate
Benke: “Part of our tongues best at detecting bitter flavors is at the very back, so the liquid must travel all around the palate to full experience the beer. And unlike most wines and spirits, beer has carbonation (CO2), and as you take a sip, CO2 escapes the liquid as gas and rises from your throat to your nasal passage carrying some flavor of the beer.”
Formisano: “For the spit technique, it’s recommended that you use it like a mouthwash. Basically embrace the wine or spirit to coat the entire palate while looking for different levels and tastes.”
Hawkins: “Let the liquid completely coat your tongue and palate, especially with spirits. There’s a tendency to keep the distillate exclusively in the front of your mouth and tip of your tongue so that you don’t swallow. When this happens, you miss a lot of the nuance and texture of the product. Take a sizable sip and let it fully move throughout your mouth, taking note of any initial flavors or textures. Then with a little force, spit the liquid into a spit bucket.”
Summers: “After primary and secondary nose passes for bouquet, roll your tongue into a tube. Take a small sip, holding the body of the liquid on the center of your tongue. Pay attention to your experience, then flatten out your tongue. Note any new or evolving sensations on the sides and back of your tongue, as certain flavors will activate different taste zones in your mouth. After you spit, pay attention to the finish. Where does it linger and for how long?”
5. Trust Yourself
DiNello: “Whatever comes to your head, there are no wrong answers. As wine professionals, we see certain varietals as having specific characteristics, but everyone’s verbiage is different. The beauty of tasting wine is that your notes are your own. Don’t let someone tell you that you’re wrong.”
Summers: “As with all matters of expertise, the trick to tasting is paying attention to the moment, not just the scents or flavors but how they make you feel. You may or may not be able to identify specific scents or flavors, but you always know how you feel about them, and the feeling is what stays with you, long after the scents and flavors have faded.”