A Question About Tasting Bourbon

I recently received a question from Jess about tasting bourbon.

“I’m just getting started out on trying different bourbons and was wondering if you have any tips on how to do a tasting. I almost always just taste the alcohol and can rarely detect any of the different flavors you list on reviews. I’ve read up on it and put some Glencairn glasses on my Mother’s Day list hoping that will help. Do you have any suggestions on what I can try?

Thanks, Jess”

Now Jess asks a question that all of us have asked at some point in our bourbon journey. “How do these people find all those flavors?” It’s a good question. I get it a lot, and I know I asked myself that for quite a while. The short answer is: practice and mindfulness. 

I know for me when I started tasting bourbons (not just drinking them), I initially just found “sweet” and “heat.” With time and more bourbon, I began to make associations. This sweet is more like vanilla. This one is more like brown sugar or maple. This spice numbs my mouth like cloves. That wood tastes like the sawdust I create when I’m chopping wood. 

Of course, there are some technical tips that will help you find flavors a little easier. Keep your mouth slightly open when you nose the glass to allow the air to travel all over your olfactory system. Conversely, if all you are tasting is heat, try keeping your mouth closed while you taste it to keep the oxygen and alcohol combination from overwhelming your taste buds. Move it around in your mouth, letting it hit all those taste buds. You’ll hear people talk about chewing on it. The other thing you can do if all you taste is heat is to dilute it. You’ll find those flavors easier if you aren’t burning your taste buds off. It might help, at first, to find a place where you can concentrate and think about what you’re doing.  

My process is to work my way into a set of flavors. I first notice, let’s say spice. Then I try to figure out what spice I taste. Is it more like cinnamon or cloves or ginger? Is it mouth numbing like cloves? Sharp like ginger? Sometimes it’s nondescript, and you might be stuck with just “baking spices,” and that’s okay. There are no wrong answers. The important thing is to take your time. I’ll spend a half hour just on the nose sometimes trying to figure out all the little nuances. But then sometimes it just jumps out at you. It all depends on the bourbon. I tend to run through a mental list of all the flavors I’ve tried. Non-bourbon flavors, I mean. I compare what I smell or taste to what I remember about each flavor. Does it match up? If not I move on to the next.

And here is the interesting thing. What you taste says more about your background than it does about the bourbon. You can only identify what you’ve had so I might say JuicyFruit gum, but someone else might say Banana, Pear, Jackfruit, or something else entirely. Scent and taste are tied to memory. That’s half the fun.

So, if you are like Jess, hang in there if you want to find those flavors. Take your time, and most of all be very mindful of what you are smelling and tasting all the time, especially when there is no bourbon around. When you are eating a cookie, think about that sweetness or spice. When you walk into the back yard on a hot summer day, think about that warm grassy smell coming from the earth. Rocks, minerals, dried corn, mulch, dirt, the spices in your cupboard. All of these things are sources of inspiration and knowledge. Catalog those scents and flavors in your mind so you can bring them back when you hold that sip in your mouth. As a bonus, you may find that as you pay more attention to your food and your environment, that you enjoy it more. I know I do.

I guess this all boils down to a few things: practice, mindfulness, and most of all, having fun. That’s the best advice I can give.