The Basics Tips & Tricks

How to Step Up Your Tasting Game When It Comes to Spirits

Image: Alexey Marchuk

As anyone who does it for a living will tell you, there’s an art and a science to tasting booze. Sure, it’s easy enough to pretend you know what you’re doing (sniff, swirl glass, furrow brow, sniff again), but the real pros put in the work. We consulted a panel of industry experts to get their top tasting tips. Whether you’re a novice or you know a thing or two about nosing, these are 12 ways to raise your tasting game.

Meet the Panel

Rachel Barrie hails from Aberdeenshire in Scotland and is one of the country’s few women at the forefront of its scotch scene. She’s also the first female master blender to be recognized by the University of Edinburgh with an honorary doctorate degree. Barrie oversees the blending for The GlenDronach, The BenRiach and Glenglassaugh single-malt whisky distilleries.

In 2017, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde was named master blender of cognac giant Hennessy. The appointment came following a 15-year apprenticeship under the tutelage of his uncle, seventh-generation master blender Yann Fillioux. Fillioux de Gironde continues a two-century family tradition as an eighth-generation member of Hennessy’s prestigious tasting committee.

A former chemist and Yorkshire native, Hendrick’s gin master distiller Lesley Gracie joined the Hendrick’s team in Scotland in 1988, and in 1999, she helped develop and launch the 11-botanical formula the world knows today.

Giuseppe “Beppe” Musso is Martini & Rossi’s master blender, having been with the company for more than 15 years after a decade as an established winemaker across Italy’s top viticultural regions. Musso, a Piemonte native, is based primarily in Pessione, home to the brand’s headquarters.

Los Angeles’ Ann Soh Woods launched Japanese rice whisky Kikori back in 2011 under eponymous umbrella Soh Spirits, and a yuzu liqueur, Yuzuri, would later join the small grassroots portfolio. Woods is a pioneer in the Japanese corner of the U.S. spirits market thanks to her innovative mindset and advanced palate.

Old Forester master blender Jackie Zykan heads up all things tasting across the board for the brand. Zykan spends her days alternating between product development and innovation, pulling and tasting barrel samples, analyzing product and hosting various brand events and tastings, to name a few.

Lucid Surf

1. Start with a Clean Slate

Musso: “I don’t have coffee for two hours before the tasting––same with chewing gum or candy, especially if it’s mint-based. This means no mint toothpaste in the morning too.”

Barrie: “When it comes to my own palate, I’m very, very careful with it first and foremost. So when I’m going to be tasting, I tend to avoid things like raw onions or really, really strong spices, because they do interfere with my tasting.”

Gracie: “I recommend not eating or drinking anything highly flavored for 15 minutes before the tasting session.”

Fillioux de Gironde: “I try to arrive with a palate that will be as neutral as possible. Don’t have a huge coffee and then say, ‘OK, now I’m ready to taste!’”

Soh Woods: “I rinse my mouth with room-temperature water. You do not want lingering tastes from your last meal or morning coffee. Of course, it’s really about having a clean palate. This means diligent and daily brushing, flossing and rinsing well. It’s just as important to thoroughly brush your tongue to remove as much bacteria as possible that could distort flavors. Can you tell I come from a family of dentists? It’s critical to your overall and oral health!”

Zykan: “I keep everything as neutral as possible prior to tasting—plain, bland foods and nothing too sweet or too sour, and absolutely not spicy.”

Bon Nontawat

2. Drink Plenty of Water (and Nothing Else)

Gracie: “During the session, take regular drinks of water. Water biscuits are also good for cleansing the palate between samples.”

Zykan: “When tasting whiskey, I avoid anything other than water to drink. Coffee and unsweetened tea have both proven to be poor choices the morning prior to tasting whiskey in particular, mostly due to the acidity, and both have left me with a useless sandpaper tongue.”

Soh Woods: “I make sure my sinuses are clear so you can smell properly; drinking a lot of water helps here. It’s important to stay hydrated; a dry mouth makes it difficult to taste (and enjoy) the nuances in a spirit.”

Africa Studio

3. Ditch the Fragrance

Zykan: “Taste in a neutral environment—no perfume, no scented candles, etc. I’ve had to switch to using completely scent-free products in order to avoid interference.”

Barrie: “I personally don’t wear any perfume but especially not when I’m going to be nosing a lot of whiskey. No perfumes are allowed so you can pick up all the different aromas in the glass.”

Musso: “In the morning, I make sure to avoid using aftershave if I know I’ll be tasting during the day.”


4. Consider the Temperature

Soh Woods: “Be extra cautious with hot (temperature-wise) foods or beverages. Burning your tongue will kill your taste buds, and anything you drink after that will be wasted.”

Musso: “Taste a product at room temperature and neat. When it’s cold, there’s less perception, and ice can cause dilution.”

Rattankun Thongbun

5. Don’t Smoke

Soh Woods: “I have found that smoking dulls my sense of taste, and the smell of smoke can linger in your hair, clothing and skin, altering what you’re smelling.”

Leon Harris

6. Mind the Glass

Zykan: “When you analyze for aroma, keep the glass under your nose, but breathe in from both your nose and your mouth. This adverts the alcohol vapor.”

Soh Woods: “When smelling spirits, gently wave the glass in front of your nose as opposed to taking a deep whiff in the glass. The alcohol content is different than wines, so you don’t want to get an alcohol burn on your nose before tasting.”


7. Get to Know Your Own Senses

Barrie: “You can never smell enough whiskey. So the more that you try and the more that you smell, the better you build up your sensory perception in your mind.”

Gracie: “Tasting is a very individual process; everyone’s palate is slightly different. But the best way to step up your tasting game is to continue practicing. First, you should taste to understand individual flavors, and then once you have a good grasp on those, you can explore flavor combinations that will allow you to understand the profiles in a much clearer way.”

Musso: “First, I think it’s important for novice tasters to understand their potential, separately tasting sweet solutions, acid solutions, bitter solutions, all to understand where they perceive each one on their tongue.”

Soh Woods: “It’s not just about tasting and drinking; it’s also about sharpening your sense of smell. Be sure to smell everything you eat so that you can start trying smell and taste together. And rather than trying to pick up scents that may be commonly used in reviews or tasting notes, go with your personal experience and instincts. I ask novices to smell a lot of spirits and wines, and they come up with wonderful references that give me new perspective. A few of my favorite quirky notes are “Sour Patch Kids,” “the soap in the bathroom” and “burnt butter popcorn sitting in the microwave.”

Sergiy Palamarchuk

8. Seek Guidance

Musso: “If someone wants to really improve the tasting experience, I recommend tasting with an expert. To taste means to associate a sensation to a word that describes it; it’s a new language to learn, and those with experience know best.”


9. Taste Everything

Soh Woods: “I believe that trying all kinds of flavors, especially ones from other cultures, is incredibly helpful. To start, the more unfamiliar, the better. If you’re fortunate enough to get to travel, try a different region’s local spices, fruits, wine, spirits and common foods. For example, while in Burgundy, I often tasted the limestone to understand the importance of geology and its effects on soil and eventually the wine. I was urged to taste different rocks from neighboring wineries. Honestly, I had difficulty distinguishing distinct differences, but it left a lingering memory on my palate.”

Zykan: “I think it’s important to taste items in pairs of products at minimum. Discerning flavor compounds is always most efficient if you’re comparing back to a standard. And taste everything. Don’t be afraid to try some of the more economically priced products out there. Price is not always indicative of quality. They could help you identify specific notes in other products, and you’d be surprised how different so many brands are.”


10. Take It Slow

Zykan: “Taking a tiny sip up front without thinking about it too much will help acclimate your palate to the alcohol. Also, palate fatigue can happen quickly. Taking your time and eating in between tastings is helpful.”

Musso: “Always remember to sip slowly and move the liquid all around your mouth to distribute it on the full tongue, which allows a complete range of sensations.”

Barrie: “I think it’s just like waking up and smelling the roses. As soon as you slow down your senses, you start to really appreciate and pick things up. Best for me is just being outside in the fresh air with the smells of nature, especially as the seasons change. Whisky is such a natural product; it’s only three ingredients, and it matures for a long time in the landscape, so it picks up lots of characteristics of its location.

Fillioux de Gironde: “The important thing is not to try to speak too fast after tasting. What I mean by that is, even for us, when we taste, we generally smell, swirl a little bit, we smell again, then we put a little bit in our mouth and we spit. I like to have the full picture before telling what I think. It’s important to develop your own opinion. What do you believe and what do you feel? That’s what matters.”

Morning at Scotland’s Ardbeg distillery. George Clerk

11. Get Your Timing Right

Fillioux de Gironde: “Do your tasting at 11 a.m. That’s the moment when your body is ready; you’re going to be be thirsty and hungry because lunchtime is coming, and you’re not too tired at that time. So this is where your taste buds and the rest of your body are ready to pick up on things.”

Barrie: “I prefer nosing quite early in the day, as early as possible, so I tend to get into work probably around 8 o’clock. I like to start then because that’s when my palette is at its freshest. And if I do any kind of sensory work at the end of the day, I’ll always repeat it the next morning because I’ll be much fresher then.”

Musso: “The ideal time for tasting sessions to me is about 11 a.m. The stomach starts to become hungry, and your senses are more ‘active,’ so you’re able to perceive things better (even the little details).”


12. Embrace Your Individuality

Soh Woods: “Keep an open mind as not everyone tastes the same. It’s important that you understand your own palate and become conscious of what you’re tasting. For wines and spirits, it’s a journey from smell to finish, and I don’t think there’s one right way to experience it.”

Barrie: “We all have something to contribute; we all have a part to play. That’s the key. I think it’s very much individual because I’ve tested hundreds, if not around thousands, of people for their sensory ability, and it varies an awful lot between individuals and what people are more sensitive to.”