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|As when tasting other liquors there is a time honored protocol to be followed that will affect your response to the various spirits you will sample.
First, look at the label. How strong is it? If you are expecting to taste a spirit that is about 43% alcohol, and what you put in your mouth is 55% or more alcohol you are in for a surprise. Your taste buds will rebel in much the same way your eyes react to the sun when you walk out of a dark room in the middle of bright day.
Next, pour a little into a glass. Hold the glass up to the light so you can look through it and judge the clearness or color of the rum. Now that you have a mental picture, swirl the liquid in the bottom of the glass. Stirring (swirling) fills the empty space in the glass with the aroma of the rum and helps concentrate your senses on what you are about to do.
Take a deep breath, exhale, then raise the glass to your nose. Carefully, deliberately and slowly inhale the vapors. If this is an aged, mature rum, you will be able to make a long, slow assessment of the delicate flavors (?) in the aroma. On the other hand if this an unaged, strong rum, you will be able to remove your nose before you do permanent damage to your nasal passages.
If smelling the rum was a pleasant experience, feel free to repeat it. The second or third assessment of a rum, by simply smelling it, may either confirm your first appraisal, or you may discover another subtle aroma that you missed the first time.
The distilleries will present their product either straight, with water, a little ice, or cane syrup. An overproof, unaged rum, for example, is a lot to put your tastbuds through without at least a little water. I prefer to taste rums straight, at least the first time.
Now, sip the contents of the glass and savor the experience, if you can. Then mentally compare your impressions from (between) smelling and tasting it.
Plan to have something to eat before you sample these rums. Tasting a few rums before lunch can adversely affect your appreciation of the quality of these fine spirits.
A bit simplistic, but a good start. Ed continues:
|Rum is the most varied of all the distilled spirits and can have the widest variety of flavors.
Tasting rum, as opposed to drinking it, should be approached with an open mind, nose and mouth.
I like to start with a glass which will allow me to assess as many of the flavors in the spirit as possible. The glass should be straight-sided or wider at the top than at the bottom, you don't need or want to concentrate the aromas of rum, especially barrel proof rums, in the chimney of a glass. I like to use a glass which is about as wide as possible and about as high as it is wide (about 3 x 3 inches).
After pouring enough rum in the glass to amply cover the bottom, I swirl the liquid to release the aromas then I let the glass sit a few seconds while I see how the liquid runs back down into the glass. Then I tilt the glass about 45° and gently smell the top or high side of the glass. Next I move my nose to the lower side of the glass and see the difference in aroma as I move acorss the open mouth of the glass.
I sip some water and repeat this process giving the spirit some time to breathe. After sipping some more room temperature water I'm ready to suck a few drops of the liquid through my lips into and over my tongue while mentally assessing how the initial taste, the body and finish are integrated. Does any flavor dominate the others? Does the body reflect the initial taste and does the finish flow evenly from the body are they disjointed segments of flavor?
I sip some more water and let the spirit sit a few minutes then repeat nosing the spirit before I assess it in my mouth a second time. It is amazing how some spirits change with time in the same way a good wine will improve as it breathes.
After I've assessed the spirit neat, I like to add a few drops of water and see how it changes. Too much water and most spirits taste flat but with just a little water, most good spirits improve. Our taste buds aren't really designed to assess spirits which contain more than 40% alcohol so a little water is generally a good idea though ice will tend to attenuate our senses.
Please note that Ed uses a wide mouth tumbler and starts with a good look. Then a good swirling to release some aroma and a tilt of the glass to allow a high nosing, moving down for a low nosing. This indeed reveals differing aromas. Be sure to start high and delicately - one good whiff of alcohol will ruin the nosing. As you work down - again gently and delicately as the heavier aromas and alchoho will be more intense here.
Do note he takes plenty of time, sips water in between nosing and sips. A good tasting takes time, not only for reflection but for the rum to breathe. You'll be surprised what comes out. Time, and repeat nosings will also help you to zero in and identify an aroma(s). Ed then dilutes the sample with a few drops (I repeat few, maybe 3 or 4, drops - you can always add more) - I won't bore you with the chemistry but this will, in fact, release more or hidden aromas. Some tasters finish with another round with a bit of ice.
Here's a few words from Scotte ("Scotte's Rum Pages"):
|When tasting a rum I will generally consider Sweetness, Complexity, Smoothness, Flavor, Overall Quality, and Value. I can't say that I have finalized how I taste rums - not the process, not the glass, not the mood. When a mood strikes me a rum will come down from the shelf and go into a glass, neat. The first sip will always be neat, at room temperature. Depending on the rum and mood, some water or time or even an ice cube might get added, and the differences will be described. These differences are very important both in finding tastes, expanding them, or just finding the best way to drink a particular rum.
Occasionally there will be comparisons between 2 or 3 or 4 rums all done the same way - all neat, or all with the same amount of water. Maybe comparisons will be done between the same rum 3 or 4 different ways, like with water and without - or maybe in 3 distinctly different types of glasses. Perhaps there will be a shootout of white rums, perhaps a shootout of $50 rums.
Comparisons like these are very good ways to highlight differences, and this helps detect things and train the mouth to discern those subtleties.
Good advice on flights and shootouts - thank you, Scotte. El Machete is one of my favorites ("El Machete's Rum Reviews"):
|I believe rums to be the most complex and flavorful of all spirits. Since casks that were once used to age other spirits are later used to age and give flavor to rum, it's hard not to think of rum as a barrel's coup de grâce. As such, there are many elements to consider when tasting rum: appearance, aroma, flavor, sweetness, spiciness, complexity, smoothness, bite, body.
Prior to proper tasting, it's important to have a clean palate as it is key to accurate tastings. Coffees, chocolates, and spicy food can particularly interrupt olfactory chemistry and is not recommended before a tasting (or during a tasting for that matter, unless it's part of a mixer trial).
And then comes the fun part...
First I nose the open bottle and get my first impressions of its unpoured contents.
I pour it into a clean tumbler and sniff again. Like a dog identifying a smell from across the room, the trick to best absorbing and identifying a rum's bouquet is to take quick whiffs. Though smell may be the strongest sense tied to memory, it is our most primitive and least developed: so although a human nose can recognize hundreds of unique smells, the brain has difficulty articulating said smells. As such, it helps to inhale aromas and odors in quick bursts to maximize its impression and retain the brain's focus on the smell. And since the nose fatigues in less than 7 seconds before a break is needed, it's best to identify quickly and provide your olfactory rest between whiffing sessions.
I then take one quick sip, kind of a half-shot. This gets the initial tongue shock out of the way. Alcohol can get interfere with taste receptors on the tongue, so this introduces the alcohol to the mouth and gets the taste buds prepped for subsequent sips. I note what I can, but this first taste is only a primer. I then take another sip, this time slowly and with purpose. I give it a quick whoosh in my mouth to allow some evaporation under my nasal cavity in order to better identify aromas and flavors and determine their intensity. The rum's sweetness is judged, as well as its balance according to acidity, bitterness, etc.
The key to tasting is first allowing the nuances to present themselves to you, and then actively and methodically looking for and identifying common, known, or hinted flavors. For example, I may taste a general sweetness that possibly hints at fruit. I try to break it down more precisely: is it citrus in origin? Stone fruit? Melon? Berry? Once I feel I am able to confidently identify the family of fruits, I will try, if possible, to identify it further to a specific fruit.
Once these impressions are recorded, I'll take another sip while taking into account the rum's body, giving it time to roll across and around my tongue to test its viscosity, thickness, and weight as well as its texture or mouthfeel. I assess finish and aftertaste, seeing how long the taste persists and how the lingering flavors present themselves.
The rum is then allowed to breathe with a short, purposeful turn of the glass (the vigorous swirling associated with wine is unnecessary). Aeration may stimulate other tastes and aromas. I will also warm the rum with my hand a bit as one would a good brandy or whiskey, giving the rise in temperature an opportunity to release further complexities. I repeat the tasting process again, continuing with small sips.
A small splash of filtered water at room temperature is then added to tone down the alcohol level and thus allow my palate to enjoy more flavors and aromas.
Then, usually after having to pour a little more out of the bottle, I experience the rum with ice. Cooling the rum may actually mute aromas and flavors, but it also tends to tone down the alcohol content, pushing aside some bite and often helping reveal more complexity. I find this, as well as the prior step of adding a small splash of water, to be the most useful and enjoyable steps in the process. And no, not just because I'm half-inebrieated by then.
Finally, I'll try the rum with a mixer of some kind. Usually it's Coke (or sometimes Diet Coke or Coke Zero), but Ginger Ale, 7-Up, Club Soda, Pineapple Juice, Cranberry Juice, or Orange Juice may make an appearance.
Superb information! You may want to print EM's advice out. Now let's leave the world of rum to consult some spirits tasting experts. Let's start with:
F. Paul Picault , ("Spirit Journal University"):
|The equipment I require for the evaluation of all types of beverage alcohol products is minimal. I use only a dozen five to six-ounce, thin crystal Spanish copita glasses for the evaluation of all distilled spirits. I wash my tasting glasses by hand, not using any soap or detergent and let them air-dry. I find that the employment of the same kind of high quality glass vessel time after time helps to maintain consistent examinations.
First, I pour out at least one ounce and as much as two ounces depending on how much of the sample I have. I use an intensely bright desk lamp for the evaluation of the libation's appearance. I do not take kindly to seeing any sediment in any spirits. Color is cosmetic in most cases and rarely influences my final score. The level of purity/clarity, though, is a different matter and absolutely can take away or add a star. Gauging appearance usually takes a minute or less.
I consider the nosing part of the evaluation for any spirit, beer or wine to be the most critical, often the make-or-break part of the critique because the sense of smell is the most powerful, stimulating, evocative and primitive of our senses. Smells paint the colors of taste and aftertaste.
When an aroma is particularly elusive, distant or shy, I sometimes enlist the help of a unique collection of ordinary and exotic scents stored in small vessels. I inhale deeply several times over the course of two minutes and make notes. I then allow the libation to sit undisturbed for another six to eight minutes, sniff deeply again several times and write my impressions. Air contact, as a matter of routine, assists in waking up a bouquet.
If the bouquet seems closed down, I often swirl the glass to aerate the liquid. Nosing consumes about ten minutes.
Next, I taste a small portion of the libation, spit it out, taste it again and spit that out. I write down my thoughts. When a spirit is very high in alcohol, like a cask-strength whiskey, I will add mineral water to dilute it after both sniffing and tasting it unadulterated. The tasting phase usually takes up about two to three minutes.
Last, I take one more sizeable gulp, spit it out and savor the aftertaste on my tongue and in my throat. This takes about a minute. In the vast majority of situations, each wine, beer and spirit receives approximately 15 to 20 minutes of my undivided, uninterrupted attention. None ever receives less attention; a few get more. I taste either spirits or beers in the morning. I no longer sample blind.
The key element to this system is that I never vary from it. The integrity of my tasting system lies in the relentless repetition. I never evaluate any product formally in the presence of anyone that might be directly or indirectly related to the product. Even though my evaluations are highly detailed, I still believe that it's important to bestow a rating. I prefer the more benign method of employing one to five stars rather than the overly picayune 100-point system that is so prevalent at present.
Personally we swallow, lol; nonetheless, Pacault is a reknown and very well respected reviewer. Now for a special, talented and very accessible spirits nut: Serge, (of "Malt Madness"):
|Tip #1: I taste my whiskies alone
Of course I absolutely love common tasting sessions, with lots of friends to share my enthusiasm with, but I often checked that the results can be very inconsistent. I can't help being influenced by other tasters' comments, I never manage to concentrate properly on my dram and it's always very hard not to let the discussions shift toward non-whisky related topics. Yet, I must admit some circles are very disciplined and in that case, it works. But then I think all tasters should evaluate their whiskies in silence and start to swap impressions only when they're done with their notes. "Friendship and musings" can and should happen indeed, but after the tasting session in itself. When the environment isn't quiet and studious, I usually just nose the whiskies and then pour my glasses into small sample bottles for later scoring. That also allows me to drive safely back to my home or to the hotel!
Tip #2: choosing the best moments
I'm bad at evaluating my whiskies when I'm tired and for me, the best moment to taste whisky is between 10am and 4pm. That means that I almost always taste my whiskies during the weekends because mind you, I usually have to work during the week. I happen to drink whisky in the evening of course, often with friends. In that case, I switch to "fun mode" and don't bother with taking notes or giving scores.
Tip #3: checking nose and palate (benchmarks)
My nose and/or my palates aren't always in good shape, even between 10am and 4pm during the weekends. So, I'll usually have two or three benchmark malts on my shelves, that is to say malts that I know very well (Ardbeg 10yo, Macallan 12yo, Highland Park 18yo) Whenever I'm planning a tasting session, I'm having quick sniffs and sips of one or two of them first and when their noses and/or palates aren't exactly what they should, I just cancel my session or switch to "fun mode".
Tip #4: nose and palate conditions
I always try not to eat strong food before any session, and wait for one hour or so after a meal before I start my sessions in any case. I sometimes use palate calibrators that work well with me, like coffee or bitter chocolate. Sometimes I brush my teeth but only with water, no toothpaste (not even whisky-flavoured toothpaste).
Tip #5: glassware
Several kinds of glasses work pretty well but what's most important I think is to use always the same glasses. My favourites are the small blender's glasses distributed by Andrews Parke, that look like the Glencairns but are smaller. They work very well even with a very small quantity of whisky and you can carry them everywhere in your pocket. Glasses should be cleaned up properly, again there are several methods but the key point is to check your glasses by nosing them before you fill them with your rare whisky. The glasses should be odourless.
Tip #6: environment
I like to taste my whiskies always at the same place, in front of the computer on which I type down my notes. I try to avoid odours (flowers, food, perfume, strong tobacco) and anything that could distract me. I like to listen to music but only music that's not too "involving". I like for instance classical or jazz music but only if I know the pieces very well. A sudden fabulous sax solo can be a killer for my concentration.
Tip #7: building flights
Deciding on what you'll taste is another key issue. Very varied flights are entertaining but they don't let the finer differences between two malts come out. I prefer to pair at least two whiskies that are or should be very similar because that'll stress most nuances. Usually, I choose from two to four whiskies from the same distillery, if possible with roughly the same ages or coming from the same kinds of casks. I always put the lowest strength at first place and the highest at last. Being able to pick such similar malts is only possible if you manage to build a huge sample and/or bottle library. That's long and pricey but it's really worth it I think.
Tip #8: length of the sessions
I like to taste from six to ten whiskies in a row, divided into three to five flights. Less doesn't work very well because I always need a little time to warm up and train both my nose and palate, or I'll use several benchmark malts to do that but that can be boring. Even if I'm doing all that seriously, I need to have fun! Tasting more than, let's say ten malts, on the other hand, is difficult as well because your nose and palate get tired and not that efficient anymore. You can taste a slightly larger number of whiskies actually but then it should be only low-strength versions (40 to 46%).
Tip #9: going back and forth
Your nose and palate will change within your session, because they'll get used to alcohol and aromas and will just adjust their sensibilities with time. Often, a malt that was very powerful when you tasted it as your first dram will seem to be much lighter if you taste it after six or seven other whiskies. That's why I always pour all my whiskies within one flight into several glasses and nose and taste them several times, back and forth. For example, I'll nose #1, then #2, then #3. Then I'll taste #1, #2, #3, then I'll nose #3 again, then #2, then #1. And so on, as long as I seem to uncover new aromas and flavours.
Tip #10: giving time
Many whiskeys are long to develop. I once had a Springbank that kept going on for twelve hours! That means that you should give each whisky at least half an hour, except if it's very simple. The finer ones will usually need one full hour to tell you everything they have to say.
Tip #11: adding water
Adding water works well with some malts (we call them the swimmers) and not at all with others. I always try my whiskies neat but then I'll try them again with a few drops of water (I usually reduce them to roughly 45%, using a pipette), but only when I feel the whisky was too silent considering its pedigree, or when its ABV was above 55%. The best water I think is water that isn't too soft nor too hard. Chlorinated tap water should be avoided.
Tip #12: the colour
The colour of a malt isn't usually related to its taste but will influence you a lot. There's little you can do against that, except if you're using blue or black tasting glasses. I tend to think that the colour of a whisky is part of its characteristics and so it doesn't bother me to be influenced by it, just like the nose will influence your palate.
Tip #13: the nose
The nose is a key component that beginners will usually overlook. I prefer to give short sniffs and will only nose deeply if a malt's rather inexpressive. Usually, I first try to get the different layers that will appear one after the other and note them down. It can be quite simple, like fruits, then resins, then oak. Then I'll try to be more precise and find which kinds of fruits and if they're dried, candied, fresh, overripe etc. It 's very important not to nose a high-strength malt too deeply because that will just annihilate your nostrils and then your session's over. Your nostrils may need several days to get back to their normal shape after such damages.
Tip #14: the palate
I prefer to concentrate on the body and the mouth feel first, before I start to track down flavours. I'll take a very small sip and then take a little more of it when I feel it's not enough to express its whole dimension. Flavours usually come in layers just like aromas. I'll swallow very little of each whisky usually and spit out the rest, except if it's a whisky I like a lot. Yet, I'll usually need three to fours sips to come up with proper notes. The palate can take a long time to develop, just like the nose and it's usually not a good idea to take fifteen minutes to nose a whisky and then just thirty seconds in your mouth before you swallow it. Another interesting option - if you don't want to drink too much whisky and just can't spit it out (can be ugly or distasteful in certain circumstances): micro-dramming. You take a small drop of it between your lips and sort of vaporize it into you mouth by sucking air. That's usually a bit noisy but it works well, except that you can't take notes about the mouth feel.
Tip #15: the finish
That's what happens on your palate once you've swallowed your whisky. The longer the better, and usually only the key flavours will remain. Sometimes, new flavours will appear and I'd call that the malt's signature. It can happen that after the finish, some whiskies will leave an aftertaste that'll be rather different from the finish. That isn't good news usually, most aftertastes being bitter and/or soapy in that case. A good whisky should have a long and enjoyable finish but no remarkable aftertaste. Sometimes you'll also experience retro-olfaction, which is kind of a second nosing that'll come up from your throat to your nose after you swallowed your whisky.
Tip #16: scoring your whisky
This is rather controversial matter. Some aficionados hate scores, some others will score even orange juice. I do use scores myself, mostly because it's the best way to remember to which extent I once liked a whisky without having to read my notes. But a score is not a judgement, it's just a summing up of various feelings and likings.
Tip #17: using a proper scale
Some will use a 5-star scale, some others will give points from 0 to 20, I like the traditional 100-scale best. It's very handy to note differences between two malts that very similar, which a short scale can't do. Of course, a rating doesn't mean anything to another person when the latter doesn't know the scorer and his tastes. I usually rate malts between 50 and 99. Less than 50 is for other 'liquids', usually undrinkable ones. Between 51 and 74 means I don't like the malt too much. Between 75 and 85 it's enjoyable. 86 to 89 means very recommendable and 90+ means extremely good for my tastes. From 93 on it's stuff of legends, actually. I usually favor complexity and typicality or its opposite, extravagance. I don't decompose my ratings into 3 or 4 'clusters' like some do (like 25 points for nose, palate, finish and general impression) because I like to be able to give extra-points when the nose or the palate is properly stunning, even if another aspect is more 'middle of the road'.
Tip #18: computerizing your notes
The earlier you start to do it the better. I'd advise you to use a spreadsheet or database software so that you can sort your notes by ages, distilleries, ratings, styles, whatever. A PDA can be very useful if you happen to visit liquor shops quite often, especially if you already happened to taste hundreds of different whiskies.
Tip #19 and last: don't take all my tips too seriously
They work for me but they may well not work for you. No fun? Too painful? Too complicated? No problems, drop the tips you don't feel like following and create your own guidelines and then stick with them.
I like Serge and have had the pleasure of being in correspondence with this humorous and talented person. He's accessible, funny and focused. All his tips are completely relevent to rum.
Now let's hear from: Jean-Luc Braud, Remy Cointreau expert:
|Preparing a tasting
The tasting place must be an exempt from scents and must be well lighted. The best sensations are at the end of the morning before lunch. Glasses' shape and size are essential and strongly affect the ability to nose correctly. Sherry copita shapes are better Avoid voluminous glasses as the evaporation area is excessive: the olfactory intensity can attack your nose. The tasting technique is characterized by a simple scheme: visual scan, olfactory scan, taste scan and synthesis.
Dilution. Spirits can anesthetize scent and burn the tongue. That is why water is often added to spirits so as to open them by breaking the esters chain and by releasing voluble aromatic elements. The water used to dilute spirits should be as neutral as possible and should contain very few minerals.
The stages of tasting
To assess the colour, the limpidity, the brightness, the body.
The colour: from transparency of white rums to a deep liquorice tinge with all the incredible shades of tan to gold. The scale of colours generally used is white (transparent), pale yellow, straw yellow, gold yellow, goldy, orange yellow, old gold, copper-coloured, mahogany.
The limpidity: defined when observing the glass from a side. Whether the glass is lightened by natural light, whether it is lightened by a artificial light which pinpoints the particles in the spirit. Examples of intensity scale: dark, blurred, veiled, hazy, milky, opalescent, transparent, limpid, crystal-clear.
The brightness of the spirit. This characteristic can be seen when looking at the disc on a white background with natural light. Examples of a sliding intensity scale: matt, dull, neat, light, shiny, bright, sparkling.
The body. Depending on its richness and on its colour, the rum can be defined as light, medium or strong. Before dilution, the rum has to be swirled in glass to then observe the lines (legs) shaped by the liquid inside: the longer the lines are, the stronger the rum is. The slowness of the trails indicates the existence of glycerol that gives more body and richness to the rum.
First, the sensations fostered by non diluted alcohol can be smelled, then the bouquet and at the end the aromas of the diluted sample.
Nose sensations: from tingle to pain going through warmth, dryness even burning. Reduce rum (with water) until these sensations disappear.
The aroma (non diluted). The very first sensations are the most important. Swirl the sample in the glass and smell it carefully while keeping in mind the impressions of the first nose. In general, aromatic compositions are covered by alcohol and closed until there is some dilution.
Notice if the rum is whether aggressive or shy. Assess its intensity and its complexity, avoid adding too much water (start with a few drops).
The diluted aroma. Add water in small quantities until the tingle disappears. Start at the top of the glass so as to obtain the spirit bouquet. Then plunge your nose in the glass so as to reveal the most secret aromas. The first impressions are essential. Then notice the distinctive features, breathe fresh air from time to time. Avoid revealing a fleeting aroma. For professional nosers the smelling generally stops at this step. On the contrary, the enthusiast connoisseurs go the next, ultimate step, the most gratifying one.
Taste and touch are the two senses that enable you to assess not only the texture and the body of rums, but also the balance between the fundamental salty, sweet, acid or bitter tastes. All those parameters constitute the palate of a spirit.
The attack or first impression in the mouth. The first tactile impressions help you to appreciate the texture of a rum. There are two different kinds of styles: dry rums and syrupy rums. Criteria such as extent, fineness, richness and complexity, balance and sharpness are also very relevant for tasting analysis.
From dry to syrupy, rums are generally defined as followed: spicy, sharp, robust, firm, or creamy, round, medium, smooth, mellow, sweet. What is more the rum texture may foster a changing sensation from lightness to heaviness. The impressions resulting from the attack carry on thanks to the assessment of basic tastes (salty, sweet, acid, bitter).
Mouth-filling aspect. The development following the attack constitutes the mouth-filling aspect. When these impressions get more and more intense it means that the rum has a strong bouquet. In addition, if these impressions gain in complexity, it means that the rum has a high quality. If the mouth-filling has the same tonality as when first in the mouth, the rum is said to be linear.
A rum may quickly fade away and then come back at the finish. In tasting, this lack of taste in between is named hollow or empty.
This step is the most important part of tasting. Depending on its intensity, this step can be short, medium or long. A short finish is all the more deceiving if the spirit had both an interesting attack and mouth-filling aspect. On the contrary, a long finish often stands for a rum of high quality.
Occurring several minutes after tasting, the phenomenon of retro-olfaction generally reveals a product of high quality. This step is between smell and taste and is an aromatic return from nose to mouth. The retro-olfaction often sharply pinpoints an aroma previously revealed.
A wonderful approach by a true French rum tasting expert - a bit advanced but in time these concepts will enter your thinking. Be patient. And last, a few tips from Natalie (the "Liquid Muse"):
|When tasting, use more than your sense of taste. Use your eyes first. Like with wine, look at the ?legs? of the spirits (how it runs down the sides of the glass after swirling). Note the thickness of the liquid, which contributes to the ?mouth feel.?
When you put your nose above the glass to smell the nose of the spirit, take one preliminary whiff to clear the olfactory senses. Then, smell it again, with your mouth open, and pay attention to the aromas. If your eyes water from the alcohol, blow into the glass once to clear the fumes, then swirl and smell again. Most of taste comes from the aroma (just think of why everything is tasteless when you have a cold)
When you're ready to taste, take a little of the spirit into the front of your mouth first, then let it run to the back to clear the palate. Now, take another sip, and breathe out across it. The alcohol comes right off with the exhale, and you are able to taste it.
Taste is part nature and part nurture. While some people have naturally sensitive palates, we can all learn to discern certain qualities in spirits. Keep in mind that while good spirits warm the throat and mouth, bad spirits burn.
Some great tips, eh?
But don't feel you have to know all this at once, as you have all the time in the world to come back to review this informative section. For now I'd like to leave you with a basic tasting method that is easy, effective and will get you started nicely...
By now I assume you have a basic reference rum. What's that, you don't?! Go buy a bottle of Mount Gay Extra Old, forget these instructions and sip for fun until you've finished at least a bottle. Now you will know and appreciate a wonderful, well reviewed classic Barbadian rum. You will come back to it often.
The glass: if you live near an IKEA store, you're in luck - it's just $1.99 for the basic Capn Jimbo tasting glass (available by mail order). Trust me, it's perfect. If you don't believe me, have a goodly amount of MGXO from the IKEA, then experiment with a sherry copita, a wide-mouth tumbler or even a Riedel rum glass. You'll be back. Your glasses should be handwashed with very little if any soap, super rinsed and air dryed (upside down). It needs to be absolutely clear, sparking and odor free.
For your first tasting pick up a bottle of Doorly's XO (a superb and affordable rum that is all rum - no additives).
Look at it, read the label, admire it. Be proud that you own it and know that it is about to provide you with a new and hopefully wonderful rum experience. Slowly pull the cork, er unscrew the cap and lovingly pour yourself about an ounce of pleasure. Later when you're doing flights, reduce this to about one-half ounce. Now hold that sucker up to the light and enjoy the color. Oh yes! Now remember color means nothing, as caramel is often added for the purely visual effect - but I'll be the first to admit that an inviting and sparkling clear orange mahogany glass of rum is a thing of beauty. Dig it! Take your time. Look again. Look as much as you want. Enjoy that tempting sight.
Now tilt your glass toward and away from you and hold it up again. Check out those legs! Do they appear immediately, run down quickly? Or do they slowly appear and mosey on down the sides of the glass? Get a feeling for the body - thin or thick? Does it look slow, rich and thick - or quick, light and thin? Nice! Time for your first nosing.
Tilt the IKEA at least 45 degrees toward you (the IKEA can almost go horizontal). Now hold the glass well under your chin, point it at your neck and slowly move it up and out away from your nose. You can move the tilted glass in a circle or elipse, up and out, down and under. At the same time, take tiny careful sniffs. You are smelling the lighter, higher aromas (remember the higher aromas are the lightest, with the heavier and alcoholic aromas closer to the surface of the rum). If you aren't getting much you can approach the glass with your nose, moving closer and then more toward the lower rim, even into the glass. But begin high and light. For more aroma it often helps to swirl the rum (unlike wine, it doesn't take much - a couple simple swirls should do it).
By now you may have a first impression. If you can't name it, not to worry. Use whatever words or impressions that come into your head. "It's sweet.. light... rich... leathery... woody... it's like bananas foster...". Let it happen. Ofttimes you'll get a somewhat familiar impression but you can't quite put your finger, er nose on it. It's fine to say "...well, it's kinda like maple syrup, but not sweet" or "...it's fruity, not orange, maybe a raisin".
It's all good. Take a break, sip some room temperature or slightly cool water. Let the rum breathe.
Nose it some more. Again, go high and out and move in, move lower. Use careful sniffs. If you're getting a lot of alcohol try a gentle slow sniff with your mouth open (this will reduce the intensity). Swirl more if you need more aroma. Focus and enjoy. You'll get more, and maybe now the "kinda fruity" will become "yes, pineapple, that's it!". Other aromas will appear or not. Don't worry about it. The more time you take, the more you'll get.
Remember, the nosing is the longest, best part of the whole experience. Smell has been said to be 90% of taste and that's not far from the truth. It is certainly the most enjoyable and it will set the tone for the tasting. At this point you may have found the rum's aroma is light or heavy, simple or complex and you will have at least an impression of it. So on to the tasting...
If you have an ounce in the glass, take a very small sip, delivering the rum to the front of your tongue. The front has more sweet receptors, sweet is our primary motivator and most enjoyable sensation, and this is the transition we need to achieve. Then slowly allow the rum to drift through your entire tongue and mouth. Consider the first impression and mouth-feel - is it thin, medium or thick feeling? Buttery or creamy? Or astringent and dry? As you react to the feel, consider the first tastes. Sweet? Warm? Peppery? Most importantly, does the taste reflect the aroma? Or is it completely different? And so it goes.
But do remember - this is your first taste and your mouth and throat will suffer a bit of alcohol shock. Don't take this first impression too seriously - once your palate acclimates you will find all succeeding sips much more enjoyable and accessible. The first taste or so of the evening really don't count. Some tasters will take a healthy sip just to get past this stage, clear the palate with water, and then get on with the tasting.
Sue Sea would add that there are really three stages here: the early palate (or first impression), the mid palate (as the rum spreads through your mouth), and the end palate (rear of mouth, just before swallowing).
Finally, you get to swallow and experience the "finish". Is is long, medium, or short? Warm, or burning? Spicy or peppery? And again, does it reflect the aroma and/or the taste? It is subtle, or powerful and robust? Does it last or quickly disappear? Is it a mouth finish? Chest warming? And - most important - does it make you want more? But let me ask you this...
When is the finish not the finish?
Simple, the real finish (if there is one), is the "aftertaste" (retro-olfaction). When all is said and done, many of the best rums just seem to leave a lingering sensation, almost a second taste. And a secondary aroma (which you can enhance by slowly breathing out through your nose. It is said that the aftertaste reveals the real aroma of a rum. Not all rums have one; in fact, most don't. But the older rums of high quality tend to, and it is a wonderful thing.
Ultimately what most rum drinkers seek is "balance" - namely does the taste reflect the aroma - and - does the finish (and/or the aftertaste) reflect the taste? The finer rums are more complex, and take more time and care to understand and appreciate. A young rum can be tasted fairly quickly as there simply isn't all that much to discover. A great and complex rum may take a half hour - an enjoyable one - to discover.
It is not a bad idea to have a glass of your reference rum - the MGXO - at the ready, so you can compare your new rum
In time you will develop your own preferences. Sue Sea and I like well balanced, reasonably complex rums with some nice smooth heat - real, classic rums in the Barbadian style. We dislike rums that are too mild, too light, too quick and that leave you empty (not that there isn't a place for those). There is a marketing trend in rum toward "rum as liqueur" - sweet, mild, very easy to drink (think Ron Zacapa) and easy to sell. We're not impressed.
The real classics don't hide behind easy sweetness - they are real rums and let you know it - but I assure you, you will come to understand and enjoy them immensely. Hang in there...
A Brief Summary
1. Don't be intimidated, trust your own experience.
2. Note your experience in your own words.
3. Find a quiet time and place to taste.
4. Enjoy the whole experience, beginning with the bottle.
5. Slow down.
6. Pour 1/2 to 1 ounce into your IKEA glass.
7. Enjoy the visual, examine the color, legs and body. Anticipate.
8. Carefully and tentatively nose the rum, starting high, note your initial impression(s).
9. Clear your palate, and nose again, high to low, noting further impressions. Try for descriptors, but let them come to you.
10. Two choices: a very small, tentative sip to the front of the tongue and slowly spreading throughout your mouth - or - a healthy sip and swallow to get past the initial alcohol shock. I prefer the first.
11. Note first the mouth-feel and body, then see what kind of tastes appear. Do they reflect the aroma?
12. Note the finish and aftertaste (retro-olfaction). Short or long? Reflect the aroma and/or taste? Is there an aftertaste?
13. Last, do keep notes and begin recording your own ratings.
Have faith in your own experience and know that it will serve you well and please do enjoy every stage, every part of your rum tasting experience.
It's fine to repeat the whole sequence, or stick with one stage until you "get it". Sue Sea and I like to nail down the aroma before we continue, then the taste, then the finish and aftertaste. Remember that aromas and flavors come in "layers" - try to ID the general (say "fruity") first, then move to the specific (say "apricot", then "dried apricot").
Sue Sea invariably finds a common element, descriptor or phrase - like "bananas foster" - that really nails the rum.
To us (and to many leading tasters) a fine rum exhibits "balance" with the aroma being reflected in taste, finish and aftertaste. Compare to a rum that may present with a light, delicate and fruity aroma, but proceeds to explode with a spicy, peppery burn in your mouth, then just as suprisingly fade with a brief and non-memorable finish. If that's what you like, great. But it's not balanced.
Sue Sea expecially appreciates a long and lingering finish - and retro aroma - that hangs with you and leaves you in a state of pure recollective enjoyment. This is heaven. We also like "real" rums that don't pretend to be liqueurs - rum with some nice heat, and a smooth peppery taste or finish. And last, don't be impressed by price - in other chapters I will identify a wonderful basic reference set of world class rums - all with exceptional ratings and reviews - that average about $20 US.
Let someone else buy you the Pyrat Cask 23...