I have been asked about Bourbon Tastings and how to hold one, I have written on the subject before, but I thought I would write a more complete blog on the subject here. 

There are two parts of tasting Bourbon that are covered here. The first is the actual tasting of bourbon in the glass. The second part is hosting a tasting of different bourbons for friends. It is important to understand the first part in order to understand write tasting notes when tasting whiskey. The second part is offered as a way to increase the enjoyment of Bourbon by sharing it with others.

The tasting of Bourbon is not a complex process, but the taster should have some understanding as to what is happening so that they can determine the “why I like this” instead of simply saying “this is good”. 

The first step in this process is to understand glassware. The type of glass will change the tasting experience. I generally use the Glencairn Whisky Tasting Glass to taste whiskeys. This glass was chosen because it is a very good design for tasting whiskey and it is available for purchase at a reasonable price in most distillery gift shops or from online sources. That makes the glass a good choice is the fact that the inward taper of the glass funnels aromas to the nose. If a Glencairn glass is not available, then a brandy snifter or tapered wine glass will work as well. Experiment with glassware by taking several different styles of glass and pour the same Bourbon in each and then nose the Bourbon in each glass. Make a note as to how the aromas are different in each glass.

Once the Bourbon is in the glass it is now time taste it. When tasting Bourbon you want to use your senses of sight, smell and taste. Each sense will help you to better understand what you are drinking. We will start with the sense of sight.

  1. Color: Color tells you something about the age and proof of the bourbon. As the spirit ages in a barrel it gets darker in color as it picks up wood tannins from the charred oak. This color will vary from a light straw yellow to a dark amber red with age. Straight Bourbon and Rye has no artificial caramel coloring added so all of the coloring comes from aging in the whiskey. Adding water to adjust the proof will then lighten the color of the Bourbon so the whiskey at barrel proof will be much darker than the same whiskey at 80 proof. A lower proof whiskey is lighter in color due to the added water, and the whiskey is more heavily filtered at lower proof, so even more color is removed in the process. 
  2. Nose: Aromas found in a Bourbon and Rye whiskeys will tell the taster much about what to expect the taste. There are several different categories of aromas that are detected in Bourbon. Not every Bourbon will have aromas in every category because every Bourbon is different. Here are the categories:
  1. Candy Shop: These are the sweet candy-like aromas found in Bourbons and usually created during the aging of whiskey. This category includes caramel, vanilla, toffee, maple syrup, chocolate – milk and dark varieties and pralines.
  2. Wood Shop: These are aromas from the barrel but also the nut aromas that often come from the grains. This includes oak, cedar, charcoal smoke, pecan, hazelnut, walnut, hickory nut, and sawdust or fresh cut wood.
  3. Fruit Stand: Flavors that often come from the yeast, but the grain recipe can have some contribution to these aromas. They include apple – green and ripe, pear, cherry, berry – raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, banana, apricot, peach, date, citrus – orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, and grape or wine aromas.
  4. Flower Shop: Floral aromas often created in fermentation from the yeast. These include rose, lilac, honeysuckle and orange blossoms.
  5. Herbal Shop: Aromas most often created in fermentation but also in the aging process. This includes mint, tobacco, licorish or anise and other herbal aromas.
  6. Spice Rack: These flavors come from the grain, fermentation and aging of Bourbon. They include clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and pepper – black and white.

There are bad aromas that can be found in Bourbon, but it is hoped that the distiller detected them in samples and never let such whiskey into the bottle. Still, sometimes the cork will be bad giving a bottle of bourbon a bad musty aroma and taste. Bad flavors include must, mold, dirt, cabbage or skunk (caused by sulfur) and acetone or chemical aromas.

  1. Taste: There are many different theories as to how you must taste Bourbon. Some suggest to opening your mouth after swallowing, while others will say to chew on the Bourbon. The correct way to taste is whatever is most natural for the taster. The important thing to remember is to let the whiskey flow over the tongue, covering taste buds in every region of the mouth. That is why swallowing the bourbon is important because there are taste buds in the upper esophagus and that is where a lot of the finish takes place. The flavors found can be split into the same six categories that are found in the nose, but they may be very different from what was detected on the nose. Adding a little water or letting the whiskey breathe can often change the perceived flavor of a whiskey.
  2. Finish: The Finish is the aftertaste left after swallowing the bourbon. This can be very long or very short, depending upon the bourbon. It can be very sweet with candy, fruit or sweet spice flavors or very dry with wood tannins and peppery spices. It is not uncommon for the finish to start one way and change to another before it is over.

Adding water: Take a straw or dropper and add water to a glass of bourbon three drops at a time and note how the water changes the aromas and flavor of the bourbon at each stage.

[Sidebar: Pour a glass of bourbon and taste it immediately. Then let the bourbon sit for five minute intervals between tastes and note how the aromas and flavors change.]

Hosting a Bourbon Tasting for friends and family can be a very entertaining event. It is a very easy event to put together and here are some steps to take to make the process successful:

  1. Chose a theme for the tasting. Themes make the tasting a learning experience as well as a fun night of enjoying bourbon. There are many themes that can be used for a tasting. Some favorites include: 
    1. Traditional Bourbon made with rye and “wheated” Bourbon. 
    2. Same brand different age. 
    3. Same brand different proof
    4. Different brand, same distillery. 
    5. Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee whiskey comparison. There are many more themes that can be used for a tasting so feel free to experiment and put some thought into why you have picked the whiskeys.
  2. Chose glassware. The glassware should be the same for every taster so that they are getting the same experience with the bourbon.
  3. Make sure the tasting area is clear of interference from strong smelling candles, tobacco smoke, cooking odors and other aromas that can disrupt the experience. Some even prefer to keep other outside distractions to a minimum and turn off televisions and music in the area.
  4. Make sure that there is plenty of water available for those who wish to add a little water to the Bourbon and to cleanse the palate between tastings. 
  5. Follow the steps provided above and make note of the tasting experience by either writing it down in your notebook or at least discussing the tastes and aromas amongst the group.

The tasting can also involve food. Traditionally only a bland food such as a cracker is used to cleanse the palate between products. However, Ouita Michel, a Kentucky Chef who worked with Woodford Reserve Distillery, has developed a flavor wheel of foods to help people understand how bourbon can be enjoyed with food. She takes a small plate and places sample bites of Parmesan cheese, dried cranberries or cherries, roasted hazelnuts or pecans, fresh orange slice, chocolate and a spoon or sorghum. She has varied these foods from time to time and has used olives, orange zest, malt syrup, and other foods on the wheel, as well. The point of the wheel is to take a sip of bourbon before eating anything on the plate. This establishes a flavor profile for the bourbon in the taster’s mind. The taster then picks up a sample of the food and eats it, followed by another sip of the Bourbon. The changes of flavor in the Bourbon and or the food are then noted. This helps her as a chef to decide what foods are best paired with Bourbon as well as how Bourbon can be used in her recipes. This type of tasting can be used with any of the themes listed above or even become a tasting theme in itself.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller