The simple answer is pour, sip, repeat. However, taking your time to pick up on different flavor notes in a bourbon helps you expand and improve your knowledge. Tasting bourbon is a skill and with any skill you only get better with practice (this is why I insist on practicing every night :)). Time to get started with the criteria for a good bourbon tasting.
Prequel – The Glass
I prefer the NEAT Glass. There is a lot of science to go with this glass, but primarily, the NEAT glass reduces the amount of alcohol you smell. This allows you to smell the complexities of the bourbon. Plus, I think they look cool. They also take care of their customers. If you use promo code “Bourbonr”, you receive 12% off of your purchase.
If you do not have one of these three glasses (order one) a stemless wine glass or short, rocks glass will work. You want to make sure your nose can fit in the glass.
A good Bourbon Tasting or Review consist of four things: Color, Nose/Aroma, Taste, and Finish.
Describe the way the Bourbon looks (i.e., Honey, finished pine, amber). Is the Bourbon clear or a little cloud? Bourbon ages in charred oak barrels. The older the bourbon, the darker it will be. Other factors, such as proof and where the bourbon aged in the warehouse also play a role in color. This scale may help with distinguishing color:
Nosing a bourbon is the most important part of the tasting. The majority of flavor recognition happens in the nose or back of your throat. Your sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than your sense of taste. I’ve you’ve eaten flavorful food with a stuffy nose you know it’s true. Yes, there will be a high alcohol (ethanol is by far the strongest compound in bourbon) note, but there are lots of other, more subtle, notes you can sense.
After pouring the bourbon take a small sniff. If you get a heavy alcohol smell try opening your mouth, put your nose to the glass and breathe in through your mouth. Breathing this way allows you to get more of the bourbon smell without burning your nose hairs. Now, let the bourbon sit for a few seconds give the glass a few swirls, (so you look like you know what you’re doing) and take another small sniff. If you are using a NEAT glass, it’s important to swirl the bourbon several times before sniffing. The swirl allows the alcohol to dissipate, giving you better smell. Repeat this process several times. Reference the Aroma Flavor Guide below for standard notes in bourbon:
Initially, it is tough to pick up a bourbon and say “I get a hint of tobacco and nutmeg with figs and pear.” A lot of time these kinds of reviews are garbage. Use familiar items as a reference. “This bourbon reminds me of how almonds smell” or “It smells woody and sweet.” Don’t get too caught up in pinpointing exact aromas at first.
Tasting is the fun part! Start by taking a small sip and swirl it around in your mouth. Caution: DO NOT DO THIS IN A PRETENTIOUS WINE SNOB MANNER. Just make sure the Bourbon hits every part of your tongue. That is the key. Now think about it. What did you taste? Look beyond the alcohol taste. What was behind it? There was most likely a sweet taste but what else? Most of your “taste” will come from the nose receptors in the back of your mouth so don’t be surprised if you taste more after you swallow the bourbon. This is where our flavor wheel comes in handy:
Add a few drops (or more if you are tasting a higher proof Bourbon) of water and repeat the process. Did you notice anything new? It’s crazy how the smallest amount of water can completely change a bourbon’s flavor. Make sure you are using filter water. Like I said before, bourbon tasting takes time. There is nothing wrong if your first few reviews are nothing more than thumbs up or thumbs down. Hopefully, this guide and other tools will help you hone your bourbon tasting skills. Now, go out and drink some bourbon (responsibly of course)!
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