All olive oils are not born equal, and just like a good wine, the right oil can make all the difference to a meal. Good olive oil is full of subtle notes that can help to bring out the flavours in your food, while bad oil will just make it taste oily. Olive oil tasting, like wine tasting, is a way of choosing a good bottle, and identifying which oils will suit which types of food.
Different types of olive oil
There are various different types of olive oil, categorised according to extraction method and quality.
Virgin olive oils
Virgin oils are the most natural type of olive oil, and are extracted by mechanical press, with no chemicals involved. They are graded according to their acidity, flavour and aroma, and include:
Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin is the highest quality of olive oil. It should have an acidity level of below 0.8% and an excellent flavour and aroma.
Virgin olive oil
Virgin olive oil is of lower quality than extra virgin, but still suitable for human consumption without refinement. It can have up to 2% acidity and will have generally good flavour and aroma, but with slight defects allowed.
Lampante virgin olive oil
With acidity levels higher than 2%, lampante oil has an unpleasant taste and smell, and is not suitable for human consumption without refinement.
Chemically-extracted pomace oils
Unlike virgin olive oils, raw pomace oil is extracted using chemical solvents. It is not considered fit for human consumption without refinement.
Refined olive oils
Oils that are not considered fit for consumption in their original state must go on to be refined to improve their taste and smell. These include:
Refined olive oil
Refined olive oil is made by refining lampante olive oil. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless and cannot be sold to consumers by itself.
Refined pomace olive oil
Refined pomace olive oil is made by refining pomace olive oil. Like refined olive oil, it is colourless, odourless and tasteless and cannot be sold to consumers by itself.
Blended olive oils
Blended oils are made from a mixture of either virgin or extra virgin olive oil with refined, or refined pomace oil. Olive oil that is not marked as either virgin or extra-virgin olive oil will be a blended variety. Blended olive oils are typically 10 to 15% virgin-type oil, with rest made up of refined oil. They include:
Made from a blend of virgin or extra virgin olive oil with refined oil.
Pomace olive oil
Made from a blend of virgin or extra virgin olive oil with refined pomace oil.
As the highest-quality grade of olive oil, extra virgin will always have superior flavour and added complexity. Select a few bottles to try and follow our step-by-step guide to tasting in your search for the olive oil holy grail.
If you want to get serious about olive oil tasting, you can buy specialist cobalt-blue glasses. They have no stem, a wide, bowl shaped base for warming in the palm of your hand, and sides that taper slightly inwards to hold the aroma inside the glass. The blue colour is to disguise the colour of the oil, so your assessment of the flavours is not affected by your expectations. If you don’t want to spend money on specialist glassware, a stemless wine glass should also work well, especially if you have some with coloured glass.
Pour a tablespoon or two of your chosen oil into the glass, then rest the glass in your cupped palm and cover the top of the glass with your free hand. Warming the oil in this way will release the flavours, while stopping the top of the glass will hold all those wonderful aromas inside.
Remove your hand from the top of the glass, then bring your nose to the edge of the glass and inhale deeply through your nose. Take note of the different aromas you can identify, then try again to see if there’s anything you’ve missed.
To taste the oil, partially open your mouth and slurp the oil noisily, taking in as much air with it as possible. This should help to release more of the flavours in the oil. Make sure you get a decent-sized sip, so you can experience the flavours in all the parts of your mouth. Next, close your mouth and breathe out through your nose, for what experts call a ‘retronasal’ impression of the flavours, which may reveal notes that you’ve missed.
Swallow the oil, and concentrate on the different flavours you can taste.
Think carefully about the different flavours, first in a general way, then trying to narrow it down to something more specific. For example, if you notice the oil tastes fruity, what kind of fruit is it you can taste? Compare notes with fellow tasters to see if you all agree.
Finally, cleanse your palate with a slice of apple or a cube of bread before moving onto the next oil.
What to eat during an olive oil tasting
Once you’ve tasted the oils by themselves, try them out with different types of food. You’ll be surprised how much each oil can alter the flavour. Pick foods that you’d usually eat with olive oil - soft cheeses, bruschetta, soups, dips, pasta, potatoes, roasted vegetables and meat. Try each dish with both a mild oil and a more robust oil and see which works best.
How to tell if olive oil is good
When you’re tasting olive oil, there are a few things you should look out for. While the main point is to find an oil that you enjoy the taste of, there are also a few key characteristics that help to identify a good oil, as well as others that can indicate defects.
Olive oil is made from a fruit, and it’s flavour should reflect this. Look for fresh, fruity flavours, rather than heavy, oily ones. This category includes vegetable flavours, as well as grassy or herbal notes.
Again, oils that taste like the olives they were made from are generally fresher, and as fresh olives have a bitter flavour, this is also a desirable characteristic in olive oil. Personal preference is likely to be a factor here, too, however. Bitterness may be a sign of quality olive oil, but it is not to everyone’s taste. If you don’t like bitter flavours, you may wish to choose an oil with predominantly fruity flavours.
A good olive oil should give off a hint of pepperiness at the back of your throat as you swallow it. It may tickle and make you feel like you need to cough. This should only be a fleeting sensation, and should not linger.
You probably don’t need us to tell you that olive oil that smells like sweaty socks is bad. Fusty notes can also smell or taste like rotten vegetables, and are usually a sign that the olives began to ferment before the oil was extracted.
An unpleasant mouldy flavour indicating that the olives may have developed yeast or fungi due to humid storage conditions.
Another sign that the olives have fermented.
Some oils can become contaminated by metallic flavours due to storage in metal containers, or prolonged contact with metallic surfaces during production.
The most common defect found in olive oil is simply that it has gone bad, or rancid, usually due to prolonged exposure to oxygen. It will taste like rancid nuts or stale crackers, and will usually have a yellow, greasy appearance.
If you’re thinking of having an olive oil tasting, and you want to pick out some good bottles to try, don’t miss our 6 top tips for buying quality olive oil.