Bourbon Tasting 101 With Our Spirit Expert
1. Can you take us through the basics of the tasting process?
First, you want to look at the color. It can range from light amber to dark brown; the darker the whiskey is can be an indication of either barrel influence or time in the barrel.
Then, second, you want to spend some time nosing the whiskey for aromas. You can take your time sniffing the whiskey, as it will change quite dramatically over the first five to ten minutes while it settles in the glass. One of my favorite parts of tasting is the difference in the first sniff and the 10th sniff.
I find one good swirl helps but there is no need to over-swirl like you would a good wine. I find that initially sniffing with my mouth closed a few good times, then sniffing with my mouth open tends to show you some aromas that you didn’t quite get in the beginning
The third part is the best: tasting. You’ll want to take a sip or two and just swallow as usual. This gets your mouth acclimated to the whiskey and the alcohol. Then you can begin sipping for taste. Take small to medium sips and let the whiskey roll off of your tongue. Then swallow.
Is the flavor at the front of your tongue or the back? Is it sweet initially, is it spicy initially, or at the end?
How does it finish? Smooth and easy, soft and sweet, spicy, full of oak, smoky?
2. What are the key differences between a wine tasting and a bourbon tasting?
Tastings for both are actually similar. Color is more important for wine, but again, there are lighter colored whiskies and darker colored whiskies and a reason for that.
For both wine and whiskey, you are looking for aromas, flavor, and finish. In Scotch, you can tell what kind of still was used by the way the whiskey runs down the glass after swirling. Fine, long, teardrops down the side of the glass usually indicate a tall, thin still; while wider, more jagged tears usually indicate a shorter, wider still. So there are similarities and differences.
3. Can you explain why color isn’t considered important in whiskies, but is a key element of a bourbon tasting?
It’s usually just an indication of barrel influence. Was the char on the inside of the barrel heavier or lighter than usual? Was it in the barrel for 6 yrs or 10 yrs or 20 yrs? Often, the older the bourbon, the darker it is.
4. What other key elements are you looking for when tasting bourbon?
I am typically also looking for mouthfeel. Is it spicy and tingly? Is there a burn? Is it smooth? Also, does it have a huge aroma and a huge flavor profile? One thing I also look for are very distinct, unique flavors. Is it showing chocolate, or mint, or banana, or sweet pipe tobacco? Also, I do believe that a great whiskey should have an aroma that is easy to detect. If you are sniffing as hard as you can and barely getting something, that is a problem for me. The taste should be easy to locate.
5. What are your thoughts on adding water to bourbon for tasting?
When tasting bourbons or whiskey, I start neat. If it’s at barrel proof or cask strength, eventually, I’ll add a drop of water or two. It really releases some aromas and flavors that you did not get the first time through.
I was in Scotland this summer and at the distilleries we would start neat, then add a drop of water and taste a few times, then add a second drop of water and taste a few times, then add a third drop of water and taste a few times. Each time, the water mellows the alcohol portion of the whiskey and the true flavor profile becomes stronger.
6. Tell us about the importance of the sniff.
I’ve said a bit on this already but I believe it’s critical. I’ve always believed that if you sniff it and love the aroma, it will be hard to not like the whiskey as it’s going down. Sometimes, even just a whiff of a great whiskey is enough to bring a big smile to my face.
7. What’s the best taste description you’ve ever heard at a bourbon tasting?
Wow. There are a bunch! Sometimes after hearing them, I get it, and sometimes, I think the person is crazy. Toasted marshmallows. Tobacco milkshake, which I did get by the way. Peppermint Patty chocolates. Wet leather. Often, after hearing them, you can see what they are saying or mean by it, and sometimes you laugh.
8. How would you start someone who is completely new to bourbon, versus a seasoned drinker, at a tasting?
I would immediately tell them that all that matters in the end is if they like it or not. Strip everything away, all the terms, all the processes and go with, “do you like this or you don’t like this?”
If you like it, great; if you don’t like it, no biggie. Use that as a baseline and begin exploring other offerings to see if they are similar or different. Also, again, I’d advise to take a couple sips first before trying to determine any sort of flavor profiles. Your mouth needs to warm up just like you might stretch before exercising.
9. What are some staple bourbons? And what are some more adventurous ones?
Staple bourbons to me are Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam 4yr, Old Forester, and Buffalo Trace. Adventurous bourbons to me are anything with a second barrel finish like Maker’s 46, Woodford Reserve Double Oak, and Parker’s Heritage Series. Some are aged in a strange place like the Jefferson’s Ocean series. Also, the special releases and the barrel proof version of Four Roses are outstanding. The Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection is always different and adventurous.
10. What’s your personal favorite? Feel free to name more than one!
My all time favorite is Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel. It’s been hard to come across since Elmer passed away last year, but when I see it, I buy it. Weller 107 Proof is one of my favorite bourbons for the money. Both of these are very affordable. I’ve developed a soft spot for the Henry McKenna 10yr, 100 proof single barrel as well. Especially if it’s a hand-picked barrel. It is also very affordable. For the hard-to-get releases or high-dollar bottles, I really like the Jefferson 25, Van Winkle 15yr 107, Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, and Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.
About Brad: I’ve worked for the company in various roles for the last 20 years. I’ve been a buyer in all categories over the course of that time. Currently, I’ve been buying spirits for the company over the last 5 years. I’ve always had a love for bourbon, even when I spent my time as the craft beer expert and buyer. I spend my time visiting distilleries in Kentucky, Scotland, and Mexico learning the trade and selecting barrels of product for our stores. In the last five years, I’ve selected well over 300 barrels of mostly bourbon, but some scotch and tequila, and tasted over 800 barrels of product during the process.