The Bluegrass State produces the world’s best bourbon, thanks to its climate and pure limestone water.
In fact, Kentucky crafts 95% of the world’s bourbon, so it only seems neighborly if we Hoosiers become a bit better versed in the art of tasting America’s only native spirit. And one of the best ways to learn, sans going on a bourbon tour, is by holding a bourbon tasting at home.
Collecting bourbons to taste
To begin, you’ll want to locate some interesting yet distinctive bourbons. Consider including a small batch, a single barrel, a rye, a wheated and a low proof bourbon. You can include midrange priced bottles from well-known distilleries like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, but make sure you also include small-batch distilleries and craft bourbons. (Ask your local liquor shop for suggestions.) Three to six are enough to taste at one time so as not to fatigue your palate.
For tasting, use clear glasses that come in at the top. Think white wine glasses, sherry glasses, or brandy snifters. Official bourbon tasters use tulip snifters. Also, have a designated container to dispose of any unwanted bourbon.
Terms to know
Single batch bourbons are bottled from one barrel.
Small batch bourbons are blended from several barrels.
Traditional bourbons can be “mingled” from 200 or more barrels.
In other words, don’t allow tasters to see the labels on the bottles; this might influence the experience. You should reveal what’s been poured after the discussion. Begin the tasting with the lower proof bourbon and work up to the highest proof. Don’t use ice or water to start, try the first pour neat. If you want to add a few drops of water after the first taste, go ahead. Have plain water available so tasters can rinse their glasses after each pour, and take a drink to cleanse their palates. Plain crackers also help clear the palate. Don’t serve anything spicy or highly flavored. (Cheese goes well with wine, but not with whiskies and bourbons. Chocolate can also be an interesting offering, but plan a separate tasting at a different time to experience.) Wait up to 10 minutes between samples.
Invoke the 4 S’s
As with a wine tasting, you will utilize the four S’s – See, Sniff, Sip and Savor – for maximum tasting enjoyment.
See: Pour a ½ to 1 ounce sample for each person. Begin by looking at the shade of amber the liquid imparts. The darker the color, the longer the whiskey has been barrel-aged, and the higher proof. A light amber color indicates a young bourbon with a lower proof.
Sniff: Give that liquid gold a sniff, pros advise to do so with your mouth open slightly to distinguish the aromas. You may detect smoke, leather, berry, apple, vanilla or other aromas.
Sip: Take a small sip, intake a bit of air and “chew” the bourbon. Now, roll it around in your mouth and coat the tongue. Those receptors distinguish different tastes at different places on the tongue. Just like with wine, bourbon is loaded with flavor. Just a few to look for: berries, citrus, vanilla, caramel, nuts, rye, spice, wheat and wood. You may even be able to name a distinct flavor like orange or almond. For help in distinguishing flavors, download a free whisky-tasting sheet at Whisky.com under “Free Products.”
Savor: What makes a tasting so much fun is comparing your findings with others. Take time to discuss what you liked, and didn’t, about each bourbon. Sharing your findings is always entertaining and educational.
If you’d like to go the easy route for your first tasting, visit the Kentucky Bourbon website for pouring ideas and tasting notes. Go to KyBourbon.com and search under “Bourbon Culture” for ideas. (Just remember not to share tasting information with your guests until the tasting event is over.) Have fun exploring bourbon, and its culture. After all, it’s all about enjoying the experience! Salute!
Joy Neighbors, from eastern Illinois, knows the wine industry well. She writes a weekly wine blog, has judged national wine competitions, and speaks nationally and internationally. Follow her blog at http://joysjoyofwine.blogspot.com.
Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon.
In 1964, Congress declared bourbon to be “America’s only native spirit.”
Bourbon must be made in the United States.
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Bourbon must contain 51 percent corn.
Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof.
Bourbon is an $8.5 billion industry for the Bluegrass State.
Bourbon must be aged in new oak charred barrels.
In 2016, Kentucky distilleries filled 1,886,821 barrels with bourbon.
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association now has 33 members – a first since Prohibition.
By Joy Neighbors