Blind tastings are difficult and humbling to those who feel they can name a brand from the taste. I always do a blind tasting at the end of my Bourbon Country Institute as a way to show students how difficult it really is. All I ask of the students is that they tell me, “Is this a Bourbon, a Rye, or a Tennessee whiskey”? If it is Bourbon, is it a traditional Bourbon made with rye or a Bourbon made with wheat? Very few people get the correct answer even at that level of description. I have had people tell me that Maker’s Mark is a rye whiskey or that Old Overholt Rye is a traditional Bourbon. I can actually sympathize with their confusion. Maker’s Mark has some pepper spice in the finish yet everyone seems to believe that spice comes from rye grain. Old Overholt is a barely legal rye and has a lot of corn in it.
Blind tastings are informative. It removes the prejudice people have because of price and marketing hype when they see a label. I have opened the eyes of many people by using what many people consider bottom shelf “rot gut” Bourbon in a blind tasting because it is inexpensive and people don’t consider it “the good stuff”. It also helps people judge what they like based upon what they experience and not what the marketing people at the distillery tell them about the whiskey. Blind tastings have their place, but should not be something that people always do at tastings.
When I do a blind tasting, I recommend using all of your senses to make the judgement. Look at the color to get an idea of age and proof. Darker whiskeys are either aged longer or higher proof. A 6 year old whiskey at 80 proof will be lighter in color than the same brand bottled at 90 or 100 proof. You can get an idea of the proof by shaking up the whiskey in the glass and examining the “bead” – the bubbles formed when the whiskey is agitated. Higher proof whiskeys will keep the bubbles longer than low proof whiskeys.
Next, use your nose. Determine what you are smelling in that glass. I find that many distilleries have a tell-tale aroma to their distillate. For example, I always detect fine leather in Barton products. If it is a rye whiskey, I can usually get that fresh mown grass aroma from the rye. This gets hard to detect with extra aged ryes as the barrel tannins come to dominate the aromas from the whiskey. It is also harder to tell a high rye Bourbon from a barely legal rye because the rye grass can be found in a high rye Bourbon and corn can be found in a barely legal rye.
Next, taste the whiskey. Judge the mouth feel. Lower proof whiskeys will be thin and watery against higher proof whiskeys. Whiskeys that are not chill filtered will be a little more oily and will coat the palate when tasted. Look for flavors you recognize from a brand or a distillery.
And don’t forget the finish. The after taste is important. The more oak, the older the whiskey. There are also other flavors that come out in the finish that can help you determine what is in the glass. At a judging for Whisky Magazine about 20 years ago, I amazed one of the hosts by naming both Elijah Craig 12 and 18 because they both left the same aftertaste of a rotten peach in my mouth. Something in my genetic makeup caused that flavor in my mouth when I drank Elijah Craig of that era and allowed me to identify the brand.
Blind tastings are worth doing every now and then, if for no other reason than to remove preconceptions about a whiskey. Don’t be hard on yourself when you get the brand wrong. I would say I am wrong in guessing the brand about 75% of the time in blind tastings. The important thing is to give the whiskey a fair and honest judgment when doing a blind tasting.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller