By Nick King, WSET product development manager and certified spirits educator
With hundreds of gins available on the market and more and more exciting new craft varieties being introduced, how can we logically assess them to establish which are the best or, more importantly, which we each personally like the best?
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s approach is made up of four key steps:
First, assess how the spirit appears in the glass. Is it clear or a bit hazy? What colour is it? How deep is that colour?
As we’re looking at gin, we would always want it to be clear and water-white. If there is any haziness or dullness, it’s possible that it could be faulty. Some unfiltered gins may go a little hazy when you add water. This is OK.
If there is a slight lemon tone this could be the result of aging. While this is rare in gin, wood aging is becoming more popular and can come through in the colour and taste.
Tip: Add a drop of water to the glass before you nose it to help release the aromas and soften the alcohol.
When nosing a spirit there is no need to swirl the glass vigorously. This will release a lot of alcohol and if you are not used to this or not expecting it, it could give you quite an unpleasant shock. Also sniff gently and try to build up a picture of the aromas slowly. You will simply not pick everything up in one go.
How intense are the aromas? As gin is fundamentally flavoured vodka, we would expect it to have some intensity though it will likely still be quite light and delicate.
Now we know we smell something, we need to assess what those aromas are.
To be classified as a gin there must be distinct pine and resinous aromas of juniper but many other botanicals are also used.
The distiller is trying to create a balance of aromas.
A classic recipe for a London dry gin includes coriander seeds, citrus peel, angelica root and orris root. The coriander and citrus are spicy and bright sitting ‘above’ the juniper.
The roots are rich and savoury and seem to appear ‘below’ the juniper.
Think of it like a musical chord; they are always more interesting than one simple note. Today, the only limit on a distiller is their imagination but all good distillers look to create a harmonious mix of aromas.
Take a sip and let it coat your mouth – in the classroom we would use spittoons but at home do as you please!
When it is in your mouth it is important to think of two things. How does it taste and how does it feel?
If you just want to assess the gin then do so with water. If you try it neat you might struggle with the level of alcohol. It can also be fun to experiment with tonics but that is another matter altogether.
Most gins are dry. However, if the gin is labelled Old Tom you can expect it be have been sweetened.
The flavours, and their intensity, should be largely identical in your mouth to on the nose, but sometimes aromas you smelt can either be more apparent or diminished on the palate.
But how does the gin feel? Ideally it will be slightly warming, smooth and mouth-coating. If it feels slightly burning or coarse, that is not normally a good sign.
Finally, assess the nature and length of the finish. How many flavours could you taste and how did they develop in the mouth? Did they linger after the first sip or did it have a clean end?
Gin complexity can vary but the very best gins have long, complex finishes.
For the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting we use a rating scale of poor to outstanding to assess the quality of a spirit, and note, we are assessing quality here not just whether we personally liked it.
Consider whether the aromas were balanced, complex and pleasing on the nose, the palate and the finish and whether the gin had an overall smooth texture. This will give you a good indication with regards to quality.
Think about the notes you have written in each section and grade the spirit. Then use your notes to compare several different types and decide your personal favourites.
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is the largest global provider of qualifications in the field of wines, spirits and sake. Courses are available at all levels from beginner to professional and offered through over 600 approved programme providers across the world. To find a course provider near you visit wsetglobal.com