By: Tim Knittel
Crafting bourbon is an art, but believe it or not, so is drinking it. Savor the moment with these professional tasting tips and be sure to take your time sipping – bourbon does take years to make!
I get paid to taste bourbon.
There are actually a surprising number of people who get paid to taste bourbon. Master Distillers (obviously) but also master tasters, some distillery production employees, professional reviewers, media folks and barrel selection consultants. (That’s a real job! Not making that up.) Each of the distilleries have their own – often quite involved – tasting training programs. For those outside the industry, the Stave & Thief Society offers two levels of training and certification for Bourbon Stewards. I’ve trained inside a distillery and I’m an Executive Bourbon Steward (that’s roughly equivalent to a wine sommelier), so I’ve learned a little bit about how to taste bourbon. Yes, there’s ‘just drink it!’ but there are also tips and tricks for detecting the more subtle flavors.
If you’ve ever done a wine tasting, you typically start with a small amount of wine in a large glass. You stick your nose in and breathe deeply, inhaling the aroma. Don’t do that with bourbon! Wine averages 11-15% alcohol by volume… but bourbon is at minimum 40% and can go up to 80%! If you inhale the vapors from inside a glass of bourbon, you’ll assault your tender olfactory receptors with a high concentration of evaporated alcohol. The sensation will be much like snorting water in a chlorinated pool. And you won’t be able to smell anything for at least a few minutes afterward. Instead, try this breathing trick: First, swirl the bourbon gently, then let it rest for a minute or so. Then, with your mouth open, begin with the glass at your chin and inhale gently, raising the glass to your nose as you go. Or, as I often do, breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose. It keeps the alcohol vapors trapped in your mouth but you can still smell the bourbon just fine!
Just like with your nose, high-proof bourbon can, ahem, ‘warm’ your tongue a bit. Actually, that’s true of all high-proof spirits. Alcohol fires the pain sensors in the tongue and when the brain receives a pain signal, it minimizes all other sensory input. So when you drink bourbon (or any high-proof spirit), all that alcohol actually minimizes your ability to pick up the flavors. But the brain acclimates quickly. While that first sip will always be “hot,” if you wait about a minute and take a second sip, you’ll no doubt find it to be much more gentle and some of the flavors will start coming through. Wait another minute, take a third sip and then you’ll get into the deep flavors.
This technique is used by professional tasters and is, unsurprisingly, called “The Triple-Sip Technique.” Some whiskey tasters go so far as to use a high-purity vodka for their first sip or two so as not to prejudice their palates with any flavors at all. Remember this tip when you’re introducing people to bourbon and ask them not to judge it until they’ve had that third sip!
You know how some people can eat a whole jalapeño without ill effect? That’s caused by desensitization to the capsaicin, which is what makes hot peppers hot. You can desensitize to the similar effect caused by the alcohol molecule, too. Lew Bryan, author of “Tasting Whiskey,” calls this the wall. Getting past the wall requires sipping whiskey regularly to build up a tolerance. It doesn’t take long but it does take dedication. Tasty, tasty dedication!
If you want to really go deep into bourbon flavors, you need to train your palate. Palate training for bourbon is pretty similar to palate training for anything else. Start by tasting a lot of things and paying attention to them. Next, you might invest in an aromatic kit, like this one by Aroma Academy. (Executive Bourbon Stewards get a customized aromatic kit as part of their training.) Another method is a bourbon and food pairing. Chris Morris and Ouita Michel, Master Distiller and Chef-in-Residence for Woodford Reserve, put together this video showing how to use specific foods to “echo” the flavors from the bourbon.
Want a little more help? Bourbon tasting events, often led by a bourbon educator or brand ambassador, are quite common nowadays. There are also many bourbon societies nationally and internationally that are always welcoming new members. Or, for the ultimate in bourbon education, consider hiring a Bourbon Steward for a private event, like you would hire a wine sommelier. There are many ways to explore the flavors of bourbon, but please explore responsibly.