Bourbon Brothers Basics - How do you taste bourbon?

Bourbon Brothers Basics - How do you taste bourbon?

Let it be known that there is a difference between drinking bourbon and tasting bourbon. Drinking bourbon is how you prefer to drink it, whether it is on the rocks, neat, or in a mixed drink. Tasting bourbon is paying attention to the nuances and aromas without a mixer or anything to dull the flavours (Some of the tastes you might discover are: caramel, butterscotch, toffee, fruits, maple syrup, etc depending on the bourbon you taste AND how good you are at detecting the individual notes from the bourbon).

So how do I taste bourbon?

Pick a bourbon or two, or three to taste… Pour a splash of bourbon in a glass, preferably a Glencairn style glass, which will allow you to detect the various scents, such as caramel or vanilla. The small base of the Glencairn glass allows you to get a good look at the appearance. Because of the design of the glass, it is easy to swirl the bourbon around, and the narrow neck allows the smell to gather under the edge and the smell of alcohol to vanish. But, don’t be worried if you don’t have a Glencairn glass, any glass will do just fine in a pinch!

Depending on the strength of the bourbon I like to add water to my whiskey (Generally anything over 55% ABV is when I will add some water). Just a few drops of water can change its flavour and bring out several different notes. You can also take a taste without water and then try it again after you add the water in, providing two different tasting experiences.

What to be aware of when you are "tasting":

Now that you have poured your bourbon, there are some important things you need to think about when doing the tasting.

Notice the colour of the bourbon. Is it light? Is it dark? Remember the older the bourbon, the darker it should be. Other factors that will affect the appearance/colour are proof and where the bourbon was aged in the Rickhouse.

This is a super important part of the tasting. Our sense of smell is stronger than our sense of taste. In fact, in a study published in the Journal Science by Rockefeller University in 2014, discovered that people can detect at least one trillion scents (Make sure your smell with your mouth open).

Start by taking a small sip and swirling it around your mouth, but make sure you leave your lips slightly parted. You’ll want to do the “Kentucky Chew” when tasting bourbon. What is the Kentucky Chew, you ask? Don’t worry, I’ll teach you!

When you hear the word, finish, it is referring to the sensations you get after you have swallowed the bourbon. Does it stay with you? It if lingers, that is considered a long finish? If it disappears quickly, then that is considered a short finish. What flavours did you notice? 

How to do a "Kentucky Chew":

Now, that you know what to look for and what the terms mean, we can discuss the proper steps for tasting bourbon. The late Booker Noe (Master Distiller of Jim Beam) invented “The Kentucky Chew.” To see Fred Noe (7th Generation Master Distiller) discuss it briefly and demonstrate it in action, you can watch this short video here.

Step One: Observe the colour. Hold the glass up to the light, and look at the colour. 

Colour: Bourbon ranges from light and golden to dark and caramel. The darker the bourbon, the older it is. Generally, if the colour is lighter, then it will be lighter in taste.

Legs: As you swirl the bourbon, look to see if it coats the glass. Some bourbon will have legs that cling to the glass, and some won’t.

Step Two: Set your nose over and just barely in the glass. Breathe in with your lips slightly parted. Be sure to stick your nose deep in the glass. DO NOT breathe in with your mouth closed, because this won’t allow you to appreciate all the aromas. If your mouth is closed, then the only thing you’ll get is pretty much the aroma of alcohol.

Step Three: Aim the bourbon to the middle of your palate. Be sure not to swallow it yet! Slowly swirl it around your mouth and begin chewing on the bourbon. Chewing it allows your palate to experience the bourbon itself. After you have done this, you can swallow. Once you swallow, breathe out, (this releases the ethanol taste), and smack your lips a few times. This will allow you to appreciate the finish.

Step Four: Note the finish, and notice what flavour is left behind and whether it is a long or short finish.

Step Five: Enjoy the warmth as the bourbon goes down. This is the Kentucky Hug
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