How I rate liquor

Ever go to the a liquor store and wonder what to buy?  Maybe you’d like to buy something new, but your budget can only take one new bottle…and what if it’s something you don’t like? Maybe you’re missing out on something completely fantastic, so let me help!  I can give you all the distilleries in the country to search, but it’s always helpful to have an opinion.  I’ll show you mine, if you…..promise to leave a comment.

Taste: Everyone wants something that tastes “good”.  But good is very subjective.  I recently read an article that talked about every time you taste a spirit, it’s almost like the first time, every time.  The weather, the time of day, the environment, the glassware – YOU – are all different than the last time you had it, even if it was yesterday. I’m going to give you an overall taste profile, with anything specific I pick up. But still no pandas.

Smell (or nose, for those of you in the know-s): Simply put, if it burns when you smell it, it may not taste that much better.  Smell is a big component of taste – taking a whiff OF a spirit first can, and does, affect the way it tastes. Some actually will taste better than the initial sniff.  Don’t open a bottle and immediately go all Hoover on it, trying to smell it.  And even if you don’t have glassware like this, don’t despair.  While you will likely pick up different things in a nosing glass, it’s not essential.  Just no bottle sniffing.

Color: I’ll note the color if applicable, but depending on the style, it’s not always an indicator of drink-ability. Irish whiskeys can be more “pale” in comparison to their American counterparts, but that makes them no less tasty, just different. Some of distillers actually add coloring to their whiskey, to make it darker.  Personally, I try not to eat food with additives – why would I drink a whiskey with one?

Finish: Ever notice that some things linger on your  tongue, while some don’t?  Hot sauce on Mexican food can remind you long after the tacos are gone, just how hot it was.  Wasabi on your sushi might make your eyes water immediately, but is gone almost as quickly.  That’s the best way I can describe finish.  With spirits, there’s also the possibility you’ll pick up a flavor that wasn’t noticeable in your first sip.  I tried a white whiskey that had the distinctive finish of Raisinettes.  No, really.  It started more like tequila, smell and all – but the finish was chocolate covered raisins. You may also find the 2nd sip tastes a bit different, as well.  You may have noticed when you were looking at the color, that your spirits coated the inside of the glass a bit if you swirled it around. If you’re a wino, excuse me, a wine drinker, you’ll probably know the term legs.  That’s what they call the bits that stick to the side of the glass.  Like wine, not all spirits do that.  If you notice it on your glass, it will be the same for your tongue.And check out what the folks at NPR reported on what your physical location has to do with the way whiskey tastes.

Other miscellaneous factors: I’ll try to include the ABV, average price point and anything else that seems helpful.  Sustainability is something I’ll also note, as it’s generally one of the main components of being a craft spirit.  While I won’t use these factors in the rating, it may be a factor in your purchase, so I’d like to give you as much info as I have available.  I’ll also tell you if a spirit was provided to me as a sample, if I tried it at an event, or if I purchased it myself. The last category is not necessarily an indicator of preference, but more of availability. Feel free to chime in on the comments if I missed something or you’d like to have a friendly debate.

On the topic of availability, don’t forget the awesomely complex laws that govern adult beverages in the US.  Not only is there the three tier system (if I distill it, I can’t currently sell it to you directly, but have to use a distributor to get it into stores and bars), but there are also additional state-by-state rules.  Some of the more interesting here in California include, “May a habitual drunkard or an obviously intoxicated person be sold alcoholic beverages?” and “How must spigot markers be placed for draught beer be placed?”.  (the answer to that is they should be attached to the spigot, faucet or outlet. Ya don’t say? I thought maybe on the ground next to the keg might be helpful). So while I’ll review and suggest craft liquor from many states, I’ll just say sorry in advance, you might simply not be able to get your hands on it. Yet. There are some strides being made in legislation every year, so there’s always hope (CA can finally sample spirits like they can for beer and wine, but still no cash-n-carry). Who knows – with the country hyper-focused on legalizing pot (or not), maybe we’ll make some progress on making things more equitable for all adult beverages.

And please – if you’re looking to argue that I missed the hint of BBQ chicken thighs in your favorite spirit, perhaps you should start you own blog.  😉 We’re friends here, let’s play nice.

Here’s the ratings scale:

My ratings: the whiskey glass system

Scotch glass_40

Please find the nearest project in need of paint stripping and use this spirit.  Smell and taste have combined into something pretty close to undrinkable.  I wouldn’t recommend it, even to people I don’t like.

Scotch glass_40Scotch glass_40This craft spirit has all the great characteristics combined into one glass: it both tastes and smell like something you want to drink. Mix it or not, it works either way.  Price-point makes for an affordable everyday drink and is definitely a good choice for a gift.

Scotch glass_40Scotch glass_40Scotch glass_40

This craft spirit has reached a level that few do (for me, at least), and it’s well worth the effort to acquire a bottle.  Price point isn’t even necessarily the highest in its class, which makes it even more awesome.  Buy it, buy it now…and invite over people you really like (so they know what to buy you for your birthday).

About Jeanne Runkle

Jeanne Runkle currently lives in San Diego, and is a certified bartender and craft liquor expert. Her specialty is the brown stuff, whether it's bourbon, rye or good old American whiskey. She can sometimes be found stalking the aisles of a liquor store near you, answering your random whiskey questions.


  1. Thanks for the post Jeanne! I usually rate liquor in the same way and have found that taste really is subjective. You are also right in your assumption– sometimes I go in and have no idea what to buy. In these cases, I usually tell the clerk what I’m looking for or different tastes I’m craving. So far this method has had good results!

    • Jeanne Runkle says

      Hey Luke, thanks for stopping by! It’s great that you’ve got stores with knowledge folks that can help. I lived in 5 states in 2015 – and I can say that’s not always the case. In my own reading and research, I look at a variety of sites, even ones that I don’t typically agree with. Good to get a variety – if everything were always the same, what fun would that be? Cheers!!

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