Holy moly, it’s the last day of September. Yikes! That means that it’s also the last day of Bourbon Heritage Month (which was officially declared by the US Senate in 2007, so we are…legally? required to celebrate it?). Anyway, we thought we’d send out this uniquely American month with a bang and dig into how to make the most of your bourbon drinking experiences!
Now, there’s no wrong way to drink bourbon, but a few tips will help you to taste all those yummy and complex flavors that show themselves when you spend some quality time with this lovely spirit. So snuggle up, grab your favorite bottle of bourbon, and get ready to get intimate with your libations! (This is even more fun with a friend -- you can chat about the process and compare notes.)
If you have one, grab a Glencairn glass, which will help direct the aromas when you “nose” the bourbon. Pour about an ounce of spirit into your glass.
First, take a look at how it looks! 👀 We’ll start by assessing the appearance of the bourbon. This is a multi-sensory experience, so we’re going to use our eyes as well. What color is it? Hold it up to the light or against a white wall. It can be anywhere on the spectrum of light straw to dark amber in color. Generally, the darker the hue means it's spent more time in a barrel. Does it look clear or cloudy? This can tell you if the bourbon has undergone filtration. Give the glass a gentle swirl -- you'll see the "legs" (lines of liquid) appear on the side of the glass. If the legs form and disappear quickly, it contains less alcohol; conversely, if they fall slowly, the ABV is higher. The more space there is between the legs, the longer the spirit has been aging. (You'll get a better idea of the characteristics of legs the more bourbon you taste and compare!)
Next, it's time to get the nose involved! We're gonna sniff the bourbon and see what scents we can perceive. Give the glass another gentle swirl and then let it rest for a minute or so. This will help to concentrate the aromas. Raise the glass -- starting below your chin and moving upward towards your nose -- and stop when you smell the aromas. Bourbon has a high alcohol content, so if you just jam your nose straight into it, it's not going to be a pleasant experience! Breathe the aromas in through your nose. What do you smell? Can you pick out aromas that remind you of something else? For example, does it remind you of caramel? Corn? Oak? Vanilla? Identify the scents you perceive. Smell it from different angles, as different scents sit in different areas of the glass. If you're doing this with a partner, talk about what you both smell -- it might not be the same, and that's OK! Our ability to taste is intertwined with our sense of smell, so this step is important for experiencing the flavors of the bourbon as a whole.
Finally, it's time to taste! The first two sips are probably not much fun. Our brains perceive the alcohol as a toxin, so our pain sensors fire up. The brain adapts quickly, though, and the around the third sip, you should start to perceive the actual flavors of the liquid. (One other note: if you're new to this, it will likely take some time until you're able to start picking out individual flavors. Whiskey expert Lew Bryson calls this "The Wall." Just like eating hot peppers, the first several times are going to taste like fire! Your body will start to build up tolerance and that's when you'll be able to determine the nuances of the spirit...or the peppers!) So once you take that third sip, swirl it around in your mouth, "chew" it, and try to get it to hit all areas of your tongue. Again, try to identify the flavors you taste. Are they the same or different from the aromas you smelled? If you can't quite put your finger on what a particular flavor is, take a look at a bourbon flavor wheel. This can oftentimes spark an "a-ha!" moment: "oh, that tastes like pecans!" See if you can identify different flavors throughout the sip; the bourbon will likely taste different from the start of the sip through the end. Does it linger for a long time on your tongue? What does the "finish" taste like? How thick does the liquid feel in your mouth? Thin like water or more viscous like syrup? Chat with your friend about what you taste.
Repeat! Nose and taste the bourbon again. You'll likely have a different experience each time. Identify what you smell and taste now. If you'd like, you can add a couple drops of water -- this can help "open up" the liquid and release new smells and tastes.
It's time to reflect. What did you like? What did you dislike? What did it remind you of? How did it make you feel? Did it bring you back to a specific time and place? Does it remind you of your grandmother's freshly baked cookies? Our individual abilities to smell and taste can vary wildly and are very personal -- so you might have a completely different experience than your partner. Understand that your bourbon tasting experiences will grow, develop, and evolve over time. Like so many things in life, you'll get better and better at this the more you do it! It's a great idea to keep a whiskey tasting journal to jot down your notes and have a record of which bourbons you loved and any that you'd rather not revisit. Most of all, have fun! This should be an enjoyable experience with a beloved spirit. Relax, sit back, sip, and enjoy!