How To Taste Bourbon

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.

Another popular option is the standard Glencairn glass (affiliate link. For non-affiliate link click here). Or, even better the Canadian Glencairn (affiliate link. For non-affiliate link click here).

Glencairn Crystal Canadian Whisky Glass, Set of 2

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.

Color

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:

Tasting bourbon - Color

Nose/Aroma:

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:

Tasting bourbon - Aroma

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.

Taste

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:

Tasting bourbon - Taste

Act Two

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)!

If you’re interested in a PDF or Print out of this post and more you can find them in the Bourbonr Shop

12 comments

    Good stuff Blake. I’m hosting an event for a wine group in a few weeks to introduce them to America’s spirit 🙂 I had a very similar approach described in my directions for the evening and was even bringing some of my Glencarin (traditional and Canadian) glasses so people would have an even better experience. I really appreciate your tips on aroma… I think that makes more sense for people who are new to is and I really like the “not like a wine snob” comment… I’ll use that with this group to get a few laughs!

    When adding water, I like to use the brand ‘smart water’… they add electrolytes (aka minerals) to the water which I think gives the water a good balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’… something filters have a hard time fixing.

    Good tip! I also use only mineral water….even use it to make the BIG ice cubes for my bourbon cocktails…..it does make a difference. The mineralization of water aids in the taste of whiskey/bourbon cocktails that are served with the addition of ice…..IMO.

    Thanks for documenting. My new bourbon friends will now understand everything I have taught them, and hopefully, they will enjoy the experience of tasting more.

    I like your list. When it comes to describing Bourbon, I think more is less. Some of the reviews make literally no sense to me. I would add though, for spice profile Black Pepper is noticeable, especially with Blanton’s, among others. And for sweet I would add Floral (Four Roses) and Black Licorice (Col Taylor Small Batch).

    Has anyone else heard of the Norlan whisky glass? It was a Kickstarter campaign that came across my attention one day (and the first Kstarter campaign I ever supported. Can’t wait to try the glass!).

    Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=higdn4aXF-M

    This isn’t an advert–just curious if others have heard or maybe have tried a pre-market version of the glass?

    I’ve only read about it but want to give it a try. Are they available now or is it still a pre-order at $48 a set of 2 glasses?

    I recently did a side by side tasting of Elmer T. Lee and Booker’s to see if I can learn how to BEST describe varying tastes…..because I HATE to read a review of a.spirit with (imo) silly descriptions like, old leather, rubbing alcohol, nail polish remover, etc….which is always the same descriptive used to describe other expressions of whiskey! These reviews annoy the poop outta me….who the hell wants to drink something that tastes like an old piece of leather, or nail polish remover? LOL! I dont…and that’s why I never pay attention to those reviews….they’re useless….now, on to MY personal review of the ETL and Bookers….first, The name suggests a great drinking experience! Lol….I used Glencairn glasses for the tastings…..when I smelled the nose on the ETL, right off the bat I got plenty of sourness and a yeasty fermented pleasant smell….like a bread dough that’s been slightly overproofed….I swirled and smelled it a few more times and let it rest for about 10mins….swirled, smelled and took a sip, VERY good…smooth, NO harsh alcohol taste and the finish was just as enjoyable as the ensuing sips…..the fragrant sourness of the mash
    is always there….and the color of the expression is a nice amber, like a piece of caramel candy…..the finish had me aching for more, sip after sip. Well worth the money spent! With a name like Elmer T. Lee, how could you or anyone else not truly enjoy this whiskey? Next Bookers…

    The Bookers is a stronger expression, of course, and the nose on it burned my nosehairs a bit…lol…but, pleasantly! At barrel proof, it’s NO joke! I took it straight. ..NO dilution. Did the swirl thing a few times and rested it for 10 mins in a Glencairn glass……the taste is rich, with dark spicy flavors…like a BIG slice of a spicy fruitcake…..like a complex cornucopia of fall fuits, fall spices and nuts, all married together, which held my attention for a minute or so until the next anticipated sip…..if the alcohol content wasn’t so high, someone could possibly mistake this for a fine cognac…..it’s just that smooth. There is a pleasant heat to the finish, but nothing harsh. The color is a rich molasses, sorghum like color…liquid eye candy…..when I drink the Bookers, it reminds me of the flavors of the fall season. The heartiness and richness of flavor for me makes it a fall/winter dram…..this is a bottle that will always be stocked in my cabinet….especially this time of year sitting by the fireplace with a good book in hand.

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