We have all heard the age old proclamation, “There is no accounting for taste.” This statement has never been more true than in how it relates to the world of bourbon. Or should I say, as it relates to our own individuality in tasting bourbon. So, if you're new to the phenomenon of enjoying this wonderful golden nectar.. Welcome! And if you happen to be an experienced enthusiast reading this, thank you for helping the growth and expansion of our community. With that aside, let's talk a little bit about how we taste bourbon.
When I meet people at the distillery they will often ask the same question. "What is the proper way to drink bourbon? I'd like to know if I'm doing it right." As of late, my standard response has become, "Are you enjoying the way you're drinking it now?" If the reply is yes, I add, "You're doing it right!" Now, this is not an original, clever reply of my own design to enlighten and inform. I learned this approach listening to two of the bourbon industry's great legends answer that exact question. Jimmy Russell tells his admirers who meet him at Wild Turkey that he likes his bourbon "in a glass.” Or, he might tell them that he likes it over ice, because, "it makes my ice taste better.” Meanwhile, Fred Noe, of Jim Beam royalty, famously instructs people to drink their bourbon, "Any damn way you please.” Both of these men are making the same point. Bourbon is made for you to enjoy the way you see fit.
That is not to say that they don't have a method of tasting bourbon, because they definitely do. And what follows will be my humble attempt to respectfully and accurately pass on to you what I've been blessed to learn from them.
There are four main factors which I have noticed that both Jimmy and Fred refer to as more important when tasting a bourbon. Those things are sight, smell, taste and finish. Having learned this, I do believe that taking these into consideration while sipping will definitely enhance the tasting experience. The science world also agrees with this approach as well, so, lets take this just a little bit deeper.
Sight: Visual perception is not technically a part of taste. However, it can play a significant role in what we taste. For instance, The Scientific American performed an experiment to test this idea. They used a panel of wine connoisseurs and served them wine through a blind tasting. Unbeknownst to the participants, one of the glasses contained white wine that had been colored red. The results showed that all of the tasters proceeded to use red wine descriptors in discussing that particular drink. Simply stated, when your brain sees a steak on your plate, it begins channeling its memory of that flavor and doesn't expect to taste chicken - although, there's a multitude of meats that apparently taste like chicken.
Smell: When Jimmy and Fred "nose" their bourbon, they've mentioned that they look for different characteristics, such as sweet, floral, or oak. These notes can be much more nuanced. That is just a broad overview reference. For example, vanilla and caramel would fall into the sweet category. They also advise us to open our mouths, or part our lips when nosing. This separates the alcohols from the other more pleasant aromas. Try smelling with your mouth closed and then again with your mouth open next time. I noticed a significant difference.
Regarding aroma, the science community will generally credit it for being responsible for up to 80% of the taste. Have you ever had a cold and thought your food seemed bland or tasteless? It's not your taste buds. It's the result of your nasal passage being blocked.
Taste: The “Kentucky Chew!” This is probably Kentucky's most famous tasting reference. It is the process of "chewing," which is essentially just moving the bourbon around in your mouth in order to cover your entire palate before you drink it. Since different sections of the palate sense hot, cold, sweet and sour, "The Chew" provides you with a better opportunity to experience different flavors.
Finish: Generally, I have heard finish referred to in terms of short, medium, or long, but, there are other things at play here as well. Was it a dry finish? Did it leave your mouth dry in any way? Was it a clean finish? Did the bourbon in any way leave a film on your palate? What about bitterness? These are just a few other contributors to what we refer to as the "finish.”
The bourbon community is saturated with reviews, opinions, instructions and advice. This can be overwhelming and intimidating for someone new to bourbon. You might say, "But, my favorite reviewer said they tasted Marzipan! I don't know what that is! I'll never get this right!" Don't sweat it. There is absolutely nothing to be concerned about. There is a possibility you might not even like it. * If you're interested, Marzipan is a paste made from ground almonds, sugar and egg whites. I have a nut allergy. So, i'm definitely not looking for Marzipan! *
In closing, for all of us "keepers of the flame," may we always be encouraging and welcoming to those who want to join us in this journey. May we always understand that there is no accounting for taste. And for those new to the family, know that your opinion is just as valid as mine, or anyone else discussing bourbon. Remember, if we all loved chocolate there would be absolutely no need for vanilla. You are free to enjoy either one, or both. So, when it comes to tasting your bourbon, if you're enjoying the liquid in your glass... You're doing it the right way.
Till next time, Cheers y'all! Bo.