HOW TO TASTE BOURBON
HOW TO TASTE BOURBON
Barrell Craft Spirits is a firm believer that there’s only one right way to drink bourbon, and that’s exactly the way you prefer it. Whether it’s neat, on the rocks, stirred into a cocktail, or sipped out of your grandmother’s china teacups, there is truly no wrong way to drink bourbon, and we hope you thoroughly enjoy the process of finding your own preferred format.
That said, there’s a difference between drinking bourbon and tasting bourbon. Generally, people use the latter term to describe the more formal, focused process of evaluating the flavors and aromas of a given bourbon. It’s a basic skill of the trade for distillers, blenders, bartenders, spirits reps, and journalists who work with bourbon and whiskey. But even for enthusiasts, formal whiskey tastings can be a fun (and often enlightening!) way to get to know your favorite bourbons better and learn more about what you do and don’t like. Here are some tasting tips to taste whiskey like a pro–even if you’re not.
A good tasting starts with the right glassware. Your tasting glasses should be clear, clean, and ideally tulip-shaped, with a wide bowl that narrows to a more tapered rim. The Glencairn glass is a great option, but it’s not the only one. Sherry or white wine glasses can also work well, as can other specialized whiskey vessels like the NEAT glass. If you’re tasting multiple whiskeys in a single flight, use the same glass for each one, as the shape and size can make a big difference in how you perceive the whiskey.
SKIP THE SWIRL–BUT SMELL BEFORE SIPPING
If you’re familiar with wine tasting, you know that swirling your glass is a key part of getting aromas from the wine to your nose. But whiskey is much higher proof than wine, which means swirling can convey not just aromas but alcohol vapors. So don’t swirl your glass–and don’t stick your nose way down into the glass. Both can result in burning nostrils rather than big aromas. Instead, bring the glass a few inches below your nostrils and sniff gently. You can always move it closer, but you can’t quickly undo that wasabi-like searing in your sinuses.
Aroma is one of the most important components of a whiskey. As you nose your bourbon, pay attention to the aromas you sense. Are they bright and fruity? Spicy? Floral? Are there lots of oak flavors like vanilla and coconut, or do you notice more distillate-driven notes like green apple and roasted corn? How intense is the aroma? Is it complex and multifaceted, or simple and straightforward?
Once you’ve experienced the aroma, it’s time to actually taste the whiskey. Take a small sip of the neat bourbon, allowing it to coat your tongue. If you’re relatively new to whiskey tasting, or if it’s a very high-proof bourbon, you might mostly notice the alcoholic burn. A second sip will often reveal greater complexity as your taste buds get accustomed to the strength.
After you swallow, breathe out through your nose with your mouth closed. Our senses of taste and smell are closely linked, and much of what we think of as flavor is actually aroma. Breathing out your nose helps you channel aromatics to the receptors in your nasal passages, amplifying your ability to perceive specific notes.
Again, ask yourself what you’re sensing. It can be useful to think in categories. Bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels, so virtually all will have some set of pronounced characteristics from the cask. Vanilla, coconut, sandalwood, cinnamon, brown sugar, clove, dill, and charcoal are all classic American oak flavors.
Next, look for fruit flavors, which are generally created by fermentation. Cherry and green apple are classic bourbon fruit flavors, but stonefruit, orange, and dark berries make frequent appearances as well. You might also hunt for flavors linked to the mash bill. High-rye bourbons often feature spicy, herbaceous, or floral tones, while high-wheat bourbons can be sweet and soft.
Here’s a secret that every master distiller knows: When you really want to get to know a bourbon, add a few drops of water. Rather than diluting your dram, water can dramatically enhance its aromatic intensity at the same time as it reduces the intense warming sensation of alcohol. Blenders and distillers often dilute their whiskey significantly during evaluation, perhaps as low as 20%, to get a better sense of its underlying character.
You can use the same technique to get to know what’s in your glass. Add a small splash of water with a pipette or a small pitcher. Give it a gentle swirl, then smell and taste it again. You’ll be surprised just how dramatically the experience changes.
Need something great to taste? Barrell Craft Spirits has tons of options. Our small batch bourbons, ryes, and whiskeys are always bottled at cask strength without filtration, which means maximum flavor for you. Or, if you’re in the mood for something a little different, check out our signature Armida, Seagrass, and Dovetail releases, which reveal layer after layer of flavor from carefully sourced finishing casks. You can shop on our website, or use our map tool to find a retailer near you.