One of the most intimidating, but rewarding, things a gin lover can learn is to how to taste gin properly.
You might be thinking, I know how to taste gin, with my tongue! And you’d be part right, but there’s a difference between drinking gin and tasting it. For starters, gin is very rarely drunk neat as, for the most part, it isn’t that palatable without a mixer.* But tasting gin neat is hugely important for developing your gin palate and learning more about gin. Mixers, especially tonic, will mask some of the botanical flavours in addition to cutting the harshness and alcohol notes. While the latter is desirable, the former reduces the flavour of the gin, so it is key to work out what ratio of mixer you should add to your gin.
The best way to do this is to properly taste the gin neat first. This will give you an idea of the strength of the botanical components. If a gin is overpoweringly strong with one aroma on the nose, then it can probably stand up to a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio. If it is light and delicate and hard to detect then it can easily be drowned by excessive tonic and it’s best to start with a 1:1.
Learning how to taste gin neat is not that difficult, it just takes practice, what a shame that you’ll have to keep drinking gin to get better!
For tasting neat gin any glass with curved sides will work. The curved sides help capture the aromas of the gin which helps you to nose it. You probably don’t want to use a balloon copa, although they will work, purely because it can be tricky to drink a small amount of liquid from them.
Whisky glasses are recommended, the shape is designed for tasting neat spirits with curved sides to capture aromas and a small bowl that allows you to swirl the spirit (this is supposed to unleash more of the aromas).
Now might be a good time to get some pens and paper too. We recommend making tasting notes as you go along. After a long hard night trying lots of gin, it can be very easy to forget which gin tasted of what. Making notes helps you track down your favourites later.
Of course, the most important thing to get ready is the gin! If you’re hosting a tasting event then we’d suggest starting with lighter, more floral gins that have delicate flavours before gradually moving onto strongly flavoured gins. This is because, as the night wears on, your palate becomes less sensitive and less able to detect delicate aromas. If tasting, finish off with the gin liqueurs, the sugar makes it more difficult to detect the nuances of a nice London Dry afterwards.
Pretty straightforward really. Don’t overfill the glass, you want lots of room for air and aromas. If using a whisky glass, fill the spirit to about half the bulbous section.
Swirling mixes some air in with the spirit and vice versa. This helps to release the aromas and makes the next step easier.
Hold the glass to your nose and appreciate the smell. Crucially, don’t give a big sniff. This draws in too much of the perfume and can overpower your sense of smell entirely. Breathe gently and let the aromas fill your senses. What can you smell?
The aromas most commonly associated with gin are citrus, fruit, floral, earthy, spicy, sweetness and wood.
However careful you’ve been on this first sniff, you may still be picking up lots of alcohol. One trick is to try placing your hand carefully over the top of your glass so it’s completely covered and tipping the glass upside for a second to wet your palm with gin. Wipe your hands (don’t rub), cup them and sniff from there instead.
Now comes the main part.
Sip, don’t gulp, your drink and crucially, never use a straw. Using a straw reduces the amount of air which mixes with the spirit. The more air, the easier it is to detect the flavours in the spirit. If you want to really maximise this you can slurp your spirit like some sommeliers have taken to doing but this is generally considered a bit rude, if not disgusting.
The first sip should be pleasant and warm with a light alcoholic heat. Try and pick out the same aromas you detected when nosing the gin. Are they all still there or are some only detectable when smelling?
Let the gin rest on your tongue, then swirl it around your mouth. What else is there? Gins can have up to 50 different botanicals and many common ones include citrus, liquorice, cinnamon, aniseed, fruits and herbs.
You should always be able to detect juniper which is characteristically, dry, piney and vaguely peppery. Is the juniper on the tongue or towards the back of the mouth? How strong is it?
Swallow your gin (no need to spit, you’re not at work), pause for a moment and consider what tastes remain. Has the flavour changed at all from your first sip? Is the aftertaste similar to the nose or very different? Typically the aftertaste is dominated by stronger flavours such as spice, earth or aniseed.
Add an equal part of plain water to the remaining spirit in your glass. This will reduce the alcohol content of the gin which will make it smoother and less dominated by alcoholic heat. It should also make some of the other botanical flavours more detectable. Sip the gin again. How has the flavour changed? What other flavours can you detect now?
So, now you know what to do for your next gin tasting night, all that remains is to get the gins in and get started!
Neat: Spirits which are drunk without ice, water or a mixer are drunk neat.
Aroma: Literally the smell of a drink. Our experience of flavour is dominated by smell so when tasting a drink, the first flavours you will experience are the aromas.
Nose: The nose is both another way or referring to the smell of a drink and the act of smelling a drink e.g. "he nosed the gin and detected spicy aromas" or "there are spicy aromas on the nose."
Palate: The palate is the part of the mouth above the tongue. In drinks tasting terms it describes the flavour of a drink as it sits in the mouth.
Aftertaste: The taste that remains on the palate after a drink has been swallowed.
Dry: Dryness in a drink refers to the lack of a sweet taste. The dryer a drink, the less sugar or other sweet flavours it contains. This can be due to the absence of sugar or the presence of other flavours (i.e. the bitter notes of juniper) which mask the sugars.
Earthy: Having the flavour of aroma of earth, soil or forest floors. Foods which are commonly described as earthy include mushrooms, beetroot and celeriac. Grapes often contain high levels of a chemical geosmin which is responsible for the "earthy" flavour of some wines.
Balloon Copa: The large bowl shaped and stemmed glass which is used at all Gin Festival events. The stem keeps your hands away from the drink, keeping it cold. The large bowl leaves room for ice and the curved sides capture the aromas. Perfect for a G&T but not ideal for tasting neat gin.
*There are some exceptions; Inverroche Gin Amber is absolutely gorgeous served neat over ice and a few gins like Sir Robin of Locksley or Brockmans work well served neat or in a G&T. Most gin liqueurs can be enjoyed neat too and all jenevers are traditionally served neat and ice cold.
We were really lucky to get the chance to Interview Liz Baker, from Wilkin & Sons, famous for their jam and now creating some gorgeous gin liqueurs.
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We're delighted to get the chance to interview Dingle Distillery's Master Distiller Michael Walsh about gin, whiskey and independent Irish spirits.
In this review of Gin Festival Blackpool 2017 by Jane Arschavir, she enjoyed herself so much she forget to make it to any of the masterclasses!