Bourbon Tasting Workout
Bourbon tasting is a skill and as with any skill you can train it. A bourbon workout is for training your sense of taste and smell. It improves your ability to distinguish subtle flavor notes in a bourbon. This workout isn’t about picking good bourbon and bad bourbon. The workout is to help find tastes you like and where those flavors come from. Before getting started you may want to review “How To Taste Bourbon”
What you need:
It’s time to raid the pantry. Go ahead and pull out the items pictured below. Bourbon has sixteen major flavor notes. Sixteen flavors seem like a lot, but we’ll break the down to four categories to make it manageable. The four flavor categories are sweet, fruity, dry and spicy. The four categories can be divided into four subcategories (and a lot more).
It may take a trip to the grocery store (no, this isn’t a Publix commercial. Just my pantry) but your table will start to look like this:
Three Different Mash Bills
Now it’s time to line up the bourbons. A bourbons mash bill will fall into one of three categories low rye, high rye or wheated. For the first exercise grab a bottle from each category. You can use the Bourbonr mash bill breakdowns to figure out what’s in your cabinet. I used the following: low rye – Blanton’s; high rye – Old Grand-Dad; wheated – Weller Antique.
Remember, the emphasis is on the mash bill and age. Line your ingredients across the table and begin to smell the first bourbon. What did you get? Continue smelling for the next 30 seconds. Swirl the bourbon to allow it to open up. Did you identify some brown sugar notes? Now, smell the ingredient you think you noticed in the bourbon. Did that reinforce the flavor notes or weaken them? Take your time with this part.
Start to plot each tasting on the chart below. It’s important to correlate different flavors with the levels on the chart. Is the high rye bourbon a higher level of spice or sweetness than the wheated? Is the low rye fruitier or more grainy than the high rye bourbon?
After you’ve hit the ingredients you thought you noted begin to go back through the ingredients you didn’t note. Smell the bourbon. Smell the ingredients. Did any flavors in the bourbon surprise you? Take a short break. Drink some water. Smell some coffee beans and repeat the exercise while tasting the bourbons and smelling the ingredients.
Now that you’ve got the idea, here are a few more exercises to try.
The same mash bill but different age
For this exercise, you want to get two bourbons from the same mash bill but different ages. I selected Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit and Russell’s Reserve 10 year. They’re both made by Wild Turkey from the same mash bill. The only difference is a couple of years. You’re looking for more “dry” notes. The “sweet” flavor should be a little less on the older bourbon
A different mash bill but same age
Here we have two 12-year-old bourbons. Elijah Craig has dropped its 12-year statement but with some legwork, you should still be able to find a bottle. These bourbon will have similar “dry” notes but will probably vary in “spice”. Weller 12 is a wheated bourbon. Wheated bourbons usually have a softer/sweeter taste. There’s not as much mint or pepper in a wheated bourbon.
Same Distillery, mash bill and age but different barrels
This is where things get interesting. We have two bourbons from the same Distillery (MGPI) and mash bill. They’re the same age. But, they’re single barrels and aged in different locations of the warehouse and then bottled by Smooth Ambler. You’ll be shocked at the difference in flavor profiles from seemingly identical bourbons. Buffalo Trace released a similar experiment with their wheated bourbon from three different levels of the warehouse.
Now, if you’re ready to be the Billy Blanks of bourbon try some of these exercises blind.
This is very helpful Blake – thanks for publishing this “workout.”
I’m learning and practicing, and for me, the fruit and sweet smells are much easier to pick out than the spice and dry notes. I’m currently struggling with a younger bourbon from Colorado that I think is much drier and maltier than most Kentucky bourbons. The flavor is very difficult for me to pick out, and I want to say it’s tobacco, malt cereral, or other grains (and leather?) – something I’m more accustomed to tasting in Scotch. Frankly, I don’t like it much, but the mash bill is 60% corn and 20% wheat, so I’m not sure why its such a strong flavor.
Any tips on the earthy stuff?
If it’s 60/20 Corn/Wheat then that means there’s 20% barley, which is a bit more than usual. Maybe that’s where the strong flavor comes in, especially in a younger bourbon. Out of curiosity, which Colorado Bourbon are you speaking of? I live in Denver and am curios what you’re trying.
It’s the AD Laws Bourbon – so it’s actually 60/20/10/10 of C/W/R/B. It doesn’t taste like Rye spice – definitely more like malted barley. Very alcohol forward as well, although resting and breathing has helped.
I am going to guess they use small barrels to accelerate the aging process. Generally leads to an over oaked yet still young spirit.
A D Laws does not use smaller barrels but I habe to agree that it had a very strong malt flavor. Pretty much everyone I know, that had a palate for bourbon, has agreed. I don’t care for it personally.
Excellent write up and workout! Could you expound on more examples of exercise #2 & #3? Thanks!!
Thanks for linking to our Bourbon Flavor Wheel. We’ve updated it to a new hi-res version and have it available for free download along with some useful bourbon tasting mats. New link: http://www.bourbonbanter.com/bourbon-flavor-wheel-tasting-mats/#.V3wqFjkrKWY