Good alcohol is similar to music.
Much like background music, you could have your drink as a social lubricant at a party. The focus is on the social environment, making friends, enjoying their company – no one expects you to discuss the subtle nuances of the single malt in your cup.
But if you buy a ticket to John Mayer’s concert, you sure as hell are there for the music and the music and the music. Likewise, when we drink to appreciate whisky, rum or gin, our focus is on flavour, flavour and flavour.
Afterall, good alcohol should be appreciated as an end in themselves. Some head distillers see themselves as passionate artisans who go the extra mile to create a quality product, like Picassos of the alcohol world. They hope drinkers would give them a little more thought.
How, then, do we begin appreciating our stiff drink? Here are 3 quaint (but surprisingly helpful) habits that would help you taste whiskies, rums, gins like a pro.
Tip 1: Refresh our senses in kitchens and herb gardens
Modern gastronomy bombards us with a kaleidoscopic array of flavours, notes and combinations thereof. With so much going on, we may sometimes wonder, “how did the wine sommelier pick out notes of blackberries, shitake mushrooms and honeysuckle petals?”
As the ancient philosopher Mencius tells us, it helps to retain our childlike sense of wonderment, and re-experience things as if we were entering a candy shop for the first time. When was the last time we peeled a tangerine and took one second to smell the sweet citric aroma? Can we put aside our devices and just mindfully taste a piece of dark chocolate?
Battles were once fought over access to spices, yet these are the same kitchen spices we could grab from the cabinet in our PJs, and sprinkle over our morning pancakes. Whenever we have the chance, it's a good idea to refresh our “mental database” of flavours by taking a whiff of some cinnamon, star anise or vanilla pods.
And while the idea of stopping to “smell the roses” now drips with cliché, both researchers and monks think this meditative act is actually good for our well-being. So go on – breathe in those cherry blossoms, find out how sweet a honeysuckle actually smells. If there is a botanical garden somewhere in your locality, there’s no reason not to!
Tip 2: Refer to a Flavour Chart
Flavour charts are an underrated hack that help us appreciate our drinks better.
Ever smelt a distinctive scent that you are extremely certain you have smelt before, but have no idea where you did? Ever tasted a peculiar note that you have experienced years ago, but you cannot quite put a finger on the source?
You know that bit in Ratatouille, where the food critic takes one bite of a dish and is transported back to a childhood memory of his mother’s cooking?
Referring to a flavour wheel might help you find exactly what you were looking for. “Aha! This does remind me of overripe bananas!”. The subtleties of the flavours in a whisky, rum or gin sometimes require some searching and thinking. A flavour chart provides a friendly route map that might help you identify different dimensions of flavour and pick out the full profile of the drink.
Tip 3: Keep notes of what we drink
(Image source: 88Bamboo)
Notes are all-important for every drinker.
It is a myth that only a wine sommelier or a whisky expert would write tasting notes. In fact, I believe new drinkers benefit the most writing them. As an amateur drinks enthusiast who only began my own writing over a year ago, I am sure that doing so would help any person grow to become a better appreciator of whiskies, rums or other drinks.
Why? Because there is no way you would remember that delightful drink you had in 2020 bottled by… god knows which distillery somewhere between the Caribbean or Scotland!
Remember to record information on the bottle, including:
- name of the expression / label
- name of distillery / brewery
- age (for aged spirits)
- alcohol percentage
- country and region of production
- date on which you tried it
Another benefit is that writing helps articulate our tasting experiences and record our thoughts on the subtle aromas, flavours and textures of a drink. You might have vague positive impressions of a drink, but struggle to remember the reason why you like it. Also, how does it compare with the expression you are drinking today? In writing tasting notes, observe these important factors about the drink:
You eat with your eyes first. So, hold up the drink in your tasting glass to observe the colour. Lighter coloured spirits might suggest a lighter-tasting, thinner body or fruitier taste. Darker coloured spirits might suggest heavier flavours, a thicker body, or more dryess.
Next, swirl the liquid in the glass and bring it to your nose to observe the bouquet. Take a whiff. Search your mind.
You might encounter distinctive scents that are not unfamiliar. Scents are intricately linked to memories, and can trigger pleasant and nostalgic reminders from years ago: parents’ new car (fresh leather), old school library (wood, age, mustiness), Christmas with the family (fruit cake, wine, chocolates and dried fruits), army field camp (wet grass, earthiness, wood), an outdoor BBQ party (salt, smoke, meatiness), an ex-partner’s perfume or soap (boo hoo hoo).
Next, it’s time to drink.
At this point, our taste buds usually confirm what our noses already sort of know – but we may be in for a surprised still!
Pay attention to these 3 main dimensions of flavours:
- Basic flavours of sweetness, earthiness, bitterness or funkiness.
- Alcohol – how does the alcohol present itself? Is it soft and subtle? Smooth and well integrated? Does it warm your throat (and makes you taste “spiciness” or pepperiness)? Is it harsh and painful?
- Body and texture – how does the weight and viscosity of the whisky feel in your mouth? Is it light and crisp? Do the flavours somewhat cling on to your tongue (and feel “oily”)? Or is the whisky so full-bodied that takes over your entire palate and lingers?
After swallowing the sip, you are left with the aftertaste or the “finish”. Some flavours will linger on our palate. Is the finish short or long? Smooth or dry? Do we sense any new flavours now that the louder parts have quietened down a bit?
Patience and mindfulness are key. The many layers of aromas and flavours are subtle and take time to reveal themselves.
If this feels like another one of those informative articles on the Internet that you nod your head to and then absolutely forget to apply these tips to your life, your instincts are right. We know you too well 😉
So, to kickstart your journey towards becoming a drinks expert, our writers @LotusRoot518 and @111hotpot have painstakingly put together a proper drinker’s diary that incorporates all of above tips, including a quick and dirty guide to tasting your drink.
Introducing 88 Bamboo's In Good Spirits Tasting Journal...
The diary is designed to help a drinker note down all of the most important stats of each bottle (such as distillery, the alcohol percentage or ABV). It also includes a flavour chart that helps us identify different dimensions of flavour and pick out the full profile of the drink.
Come with us on a journey towards becoming a whisky, rum or gin expert. Get a copy of the In Good Spirits drinker’s diary on our Store here.
Upgrade your tasting game with the new In Good Spirits Tasting Journal!
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