I recently had the opportunity to participate in and lead some guided bourbon tastings. If you’re having family or friends for a gathering, with the interest in bourbon continuing to rise, there’s no better way to celebrate than with America’s native spirit. If you’re hosting, here are some tips.
Known or Blind?
Do you want to do a known flight or a blind tasting? Known flights are good in the sense that you can see each bottle as you’re tasting and can discuss the mash bill, distiller, history, etc. Blind flights can be fun, allowing you to hone in what you like (or dislike) from each of the spirits or even attempt to guess what’s in your glass. Regardless of your approach, serve small amounts in clear glasses to allow tasters to experience all aspects of the tasting – small, disposable transparent shot glasses can be perfect for tasting and make for a care-free clean-up.
Variety is Good
Consider a variety of spirits, including different proofs, mash bills, distillers, bourbons vs. whiskeys vs. ryes. Don’t overdo it, though. Limit your tasting to a small number of spirits – 4 is a good number. Unless you’re serving as a judge at a World Spirits Competition, you’re likely to burn your taste buds out if you don’t set a limit.
Be a Good Host
Always have ample water and snacks for your tasters. Besides keeping you hydrated, experimenting by adding a drop or two in a bourbon can dramatically change the flavor profile, allowing lighter notes to bloom; adding ice can tone-down higher proof or spicier whiskies. Don’t forget to include some edibles. Pairing meats, cheeses, nuts, crackers, and chocolate can also change what characteristics are at the forefront or the background of the spirit.
Now that you’re starting to put together your bourbon line-up, get organized and make it an interactive experience. Consider tasting sheets and writing instruments for your guests to take notes about what they noticed with each sip. Start with lower-proof spirits and end with your higher-proof bourbons.
There are 4 key aspects to tasting every whiskey: eye, nose, palate, and finish. Let’s break down each of these.
Eye – Look at the spirit. What do you see? Is it light-colored and straw-like? Or deep and dark amber-colored? Or is it reddish and copper-colored? Swirl it gently in the glass. Depending on your vessel, you might even see legs on the side of the glass where the bourbon drains down the sides of the glass. Are they long or short? Wide or thin?
Nose – Be careful here. Read all of the instructions before attempting at home. Leaving your mouth open, bring the glass to your nose and inhale slightly (we do this so you don’t burn your nose from any alcohol notes). What do you smell? Common notes are caramel, vanilla, oak, and spice. Some brands offer lighter fruit and floral essences. Be sure to sniff again in-between sips or a snack. You might smell something completely different.
Palate – Do not tilt your head back and down this like a shot. Some of these spirits have quietly aged 6-10 years, so respect the time spent in the barrel. Take a small sip and carefully swish it completely around your mouth, even smacking your lips to make a loud chewing sound. You’ve just now demonstrated the Kentucky Chew. This allows your palate to completely experience the bourbon. If its burning, that’s ok. Take a sip of water. Now, slowly, take another sip and allow the spirit to dance around all of your taste buds. What do you taste? Caramel, vanilla, baked fruit, toasted oak and baking spices are all common notes, as well as peanut cornbread and chocolate.
Finish – After your taste buds have experienced the spirit to its fullest, swallow the bourbon. Does it linger a few seconds (short) or does it wrap you in its arms (called a Kentucky Hug) for 30 seconds (considered long) – or even longer? Do you sense sweeter (caramel-like) or spicy (rye bread-like) or dry (like toasted oak) notes?
Ready to host a tasting?
Here are some themed flights to consider.
Introduction to Bourbon: Four Roses Tan Label, Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Whiskey Row Series: Old Forester 1870, Old Forester 1897, Old Forester 1910, Old Forester 1920
Wheated Bourbon Standoff: Rebel Yell, Larceny, Makers Mark, Weller Signature Reserve
Best of Buffalo Trace: Buffalo Trace, Weller Signature Reserve, Blanton’s, George Stagg Jr.
Talk Turkey to Me: Wild Turkey 101, Wild Turkey Rye, Russel’s Reserve 10-Year, Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Beam Me Up: Jim Beam White Label, Basil Hayden, Old Tub, Knob Creek 9-Year
Heaven Can Wait: Heaven Hill 6-Year Green Label, Larceny, Heaven Hill 7-Year Bottled-in-Bond, Henry McKenna 10-Year Bottled-in-Bond
Woodford Four Grain: Woodford Reserve Distillers Select, Woodford Reserve Rye, Woodford Reserve Malt Whiskey, Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey