How to taste Gin – Part One
Gin’s success as a category is almost entirely down to taste, or rather, just how individual each distillery’s offering can taste. Drinkers like us wax lyrical about the huge array of possible flavours, we talk about the journey gin takes us on, the places it temporarily deposits us in, be that the West Coast of Australia or deep in a Californian forest.
It is to be expected, then, that we are constantly being asked how to taste all these flavours here at Gin Foundry. So much so that we’ve decided to take a moment and try to help you work that one out.
Before we delve into a few things to help you improve your ability to discern specific flavours, we’re going to ask you to ask yourself a simple question…
Just as with seeing and looking, there is a big difference between drinking and tasting. The former is an easy, almost thoughtless task, the latter is one that takes practice. Tasting is a real skill; it’s one that needs to be developed and then honed.
We think that to taste all of what Gin has to offer, to really taste Gin, you need to let your mind wander, whilst also seeking out very specific flavours and trying to deconstruct them. It’s a strange combination if ever there’s been one.
The two problems anyone new to the task will encounter are as follows: 1. Separating one flavour from the next to be able to discern and enjoy the individual elements. 2. Articulating the flavour and general impression it gives you without sounding like you need to be carted off by men in white coats.
Hence, again, the question: why bother? What is the purpose of doing this? Answering this is the best way to create an outcome that’s useful for you, and will also help you find a method that is consistent. It also means you don’t have to try and do it all…
If you’re distilling, it makes sense to take a scientific approach. You know what overall flavour you want your gin to have, so the point of tasting is to be able understand what is missing (or what’s over abundant). What’s noticeable quickly becomes what’s fixable when you know what tools you’re working with. For them, for the majority of these tastings it is not about the bigger picture but about how the minutiae of flavours interact and how they are ordered into a journey. The person is tasting to refine the flavours and, thereafter, keep them consistent. Tasting notes are ingredient specific, short, ordered and typically reference the difference on previous batches. The reasons why the distiller is doing that informs both the process and the outcome.
If you’re tasting as an everyday drinker, i.e. the 95% of people who ask us how to ‘get better at tasting’, then the only real answer to the question of ‘why’ is that it helps you to fully understand what you like, in order to enjoy much, much more of it.
How to structure the tasting and what things to take notice of need to have that purpose in mind. Here are two such ways to go about doing this, where the first leans towards trying to understand more about the specific flavours you like, while the second leans towards appreciating the wider impressions these flavours create and what they personally evoke for you.
Cataloguing your notes is a great way of nerding out, honing your detective skills and creating a bank of information that you can return to and see where your preferences lie.
One of our favourite methods, and a good way to do rapid notes (if, for example, you happen to pop to something like this neat little festival called Junipalooza and get the chance to taste dozens in one day) is to establish a four-part process.
The first step is to assess what you have in the glass. Use specifics for actual facts, ABV/Production/the name of the Gin etc (there’s nothing worse than having a piece of paper that clearly shows you loved it, but with little to indicate what ‘it’ was). So far, so easy.
The second part is to use visuals to mark down your feelings on colour or texture and write down your first thoughts upon both smell and taste. These quick-hand notes will help you to paint an overall picture. Don’t overthink it. This is deliberately quickfire and it’s as much about helping you write SOMETHING rather than not knowing where to start, as it is about starting to trust your instincts (and which flavours pop out at you more than others and if you like them).
The next step is to analyse what was important within the flavour, what was abundant? What was completely non-present? It’s as much about noticing what’s not there as it is what’s dominant. Sniff, then taste the gin again, this time keeping the liquid in your mouth for several-long-seconds and focus on three key flavour areas, giving you more of a chance to get in depth. Don’t start saying a million things, just pick three core flavours that rise above all the others. These probably match your first impressions but they are now much more obvious and formed.
The third step is articulation – turning this quick hand into something legible. This may sound like it’s only useful to bloggers, but if you keep the gin in hand as a reference and take the time to transcribe your notes into some strong sentences, you’ll quickly learn which gins you really, truly loved. The fact that your tasting turned into a mini story is a key sign that you enjoyed it. Also, by having to write a sentence and not just disjointed words, it forces you to extrapolate on a flavour and dig into it, transforming what can be sporadic and broad terms into coherent explanations. Citrus and Cardamom, becomes “Intense waxy orange peel and curried cardamom spice,” for example. It’s much easier to return to that and understand what you meant at a later date, than to just find a load of words jumbled in no particular hierarchy of importance, order or intensity.
It also makes things a lot neater. But that’s just us…
CROSS ASSOCIATION NOTES:
The second and almost polar opposite method is about not approaching a tasting with any desire to write with structure or indeed much specificity, but to carry out a tasting in order to force oneself to take the time to appreciate and observe the gin more carefully.
The details are not as important as the overall picture. It is less about outlining the flavours and more about taking a moment to savour. It is about uncovering the hidden connections to what it really reminds you of and what you like, in general. Doing this in particular can help you understand why a certain flavour resonates so deeply and which words or styles of gin to gravitate to.
Our top tips to do this are three-fold:
Firstly, focus solely on what it tastes like, not what it tastes of. This is not about distinguishing that the fresh lemon peel was applied in the vapour chamber, for example, but more that the impression of lemon peel reminds you of a bright, slightly warm lemon curd pie. It’s about the overall impression in relation to you, not the specifics. What do you associate the flavours with?
Secondly, note the word flavours. No gin happens all at once. There will be a start, a middle and an end. Try and focus on dividing it into at least two (aroma vs taste). For example, smells like a winter forest, tastes like a fresh herb garden.
This brings us on to tip number three: This approach can rapidly turn into notes that are as obscure as the rantings and mad reveries of a mystical shaman, as often they become only relevant to your own personal experiences and therefore abstract and impenetrable to those looking on. Yep. Call the shrink as this is the new Rorschach test. Unfortunately, that’s both the joy and the flaw however. It’s a method for you to take the time to take notice of a gin, to identify what the gin reminds you of, what it makes you feel like and to help you contextualise it for yourself. Try and keep it reasonable however, and use the kind of terms you might find on a label, so that it helps you seek it out in other brands.
We find that practicing this self-reflective, connective association helps with perceiving the extraordinary acts of creativity managed by the combination of everyday ingredients and shows just how wildly evocative and transportive a spirit Gin can be. More over, it makes you stop for a second to let what’s in your glass really show it’s full potential, namely to make you savour the moment, wherever you are whoever you are with.
DO A BIT OF BOTH IF YOU MUST
These approaches are not mutually exclusive of each other and can easily be combined. A bit of structured fact, alongside a bit of whimsical sentiment is fine. The key is to remember why you are doing it as that informs what will be relevant to you and what you will draw most satisfaction from.
Our final point is this: do not miss the point. It’s just Gin, lads. It isn’t an academic pursuit, and knowing the exact botanical make-up isn’t going to change your life, nor should it affect your enjoyment. You can’t ever fully understand what a Gin is for and about unless you understand this key fact: it has been made to be enjoyed. To be supped in a glass full of giant ice cubes and a splash of tonic, or in a negroni, or with friends on a park bench. It is a delicious tipple that you should enjoy boundlessly, regardless of how much you understand it.
For those wanting to know how to improve their abilities to distinguish the individual botanicals and deconstruct gin flavours, then read part two, which is all about improving detection. TASTING GIN PART TWO
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