I'm No Expert,but...
“Dad, what are you doing? Why do you do that?” This is a pretty regular question from my 11-year-old daughter as I’m nosing my bourbon one nostril at a time. “Because he’s a ______,” answers my wife before I can respond (you can insert, “nerd,” “idiot,” “tool” or other descriptive noun of your choosing). No matter how much grief I get, there will be no quit in my game. I love sniffing whiskey; I love tasting whiskey. I find it so challenging to pick out different scents, flavors, and feelings within a spirit and the only way to improve performance is with additional reps (responsibly, of course!). It’s like going to the gym or playing a sport – practice, practice, practice! It may not make you perfect, but you’ll make progress.
When I first started drinking bourbon, it was pretty simple…I either liked it or I didn’t. But once I started exercising my palate and trying a bunch of different pours, I realized just how distinct they are from one another. It’s incredible! I’ll also admit that I thought tasting notes were completely absurd at first until I started picking out some of the most bizarre characteristics on my own. Now to be clear, I still think it’s a bit crazy when someone pulls out a note from a whiskey and I’m fairly certain it’s something they’ve never even tasted before, but every palate is different so I guess I’ll just take their word for it.
I’ve mentioned Bourbon Curious by Fred Minnick before and that’s because the book truly influenced the way I taste whiskey. His book contains an exercise that forces you to think of scents and flavors in a way that you associate them with memories from experiences through your life. Now when I taste a whiskey, I can transport myself back to the 80’s when I was at my grandparents’ house eating Brach’s flavored caramels with my Papa. I may not be tasting that exact flavor, but the liquid in the glass is reminding me of that flavor profile and therein lies a great tasting note.
Going back to these memories can make drinking the whiskey so much more of an impactful experience as well. Some of my favorite notes I’ve ever picked out of a glass meant more to me as a memory than it did as an actual tasting sensation. Here are a couple of examples:
- Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye and Bardstown Bourbon Company’s The Prisoner are both whiskeys that I don’t actually enjoy, but a note that I picked up is one of my fondest life memories. In both of these products, I tasted a raw, doughy fresh pasta noodle flavor that reminded me of my Nana making homemade noodles for her chicken soup. She’d hang all of the noodles draped over her kitchen chairs to dry and I’d probably eat a quarter of them before they ever ended up in the pot.
- Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and Old Forester 1910 are pretty similar dessert-y pours and after I get past the sweet chocolate and smoke, I pick up old school candy cigarettes, the chalky and sugary sticks from way back in the day (my kids thought they tasted like bananas, so we called them “banana candy” when they were small to avoid the whole smoking aspect). Maybe I’m crazy, but they are still one of my favorite candies.
- Back to Bardstown, the Discovery Series #1 had a minty wax lips note that will bring you right back to Halloween as a kid.
I’m not an expert and my palate is far from refined, but it sure is fun to put tasting notes on paper and pick apart a whiskey. When I do a review and jot down my thoughts, I almost always use a Glencairn glass. In my opinion, the “glen” concentrates the smell to the top of the glass without overwhelming you with alcohol vapors and it allows for the nose to interact with the palate when you sip. Before I share some of my reviews, here are a few tasting tips to consider that I’ve picked up along the way from books, formal tastings and bottle shares with friends.
- If I review a whiskey, it’s usually my second pour of the night. I typically stretch out the palate with a lower proof (90’s) product before getting into the targeted item.
- If it’s a higher proof whiskey that I’m reviewing, I’ll let it sit in the glen for 5-10 minutes before beginning to let some alcohol burn off.
- Allow a bit more air to get into the whiskey by swirling it around in the glen from time to time through the tasting.
- I’ve been told that leaving your mouth cracked open when you nose the glass will help your sense of smell from being completely overpowered as the air passes through your olfactory.
- I nose the glass from side to side letting each nostril process the smells on its own.
- Allow the whiskey to roll around over your tongue, stick to the sides of your palate and develop of full mouth experience as you sip.
- Don’t judge from the first sip, especially if it’s a high proof pour. Get back in there for another to double check.
- Consider tasting your whiskey blind! Have someone else pour you an unknown bourbon so you aren’t influenced by what you think you know about it.
- Last tip from my buddy @Uptown_Drams – Consider printing out a Bourbon Tasting Sheet to help call to mind flavors and other notes as you taste. (Google it and find one you like!)
If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I put out a whiskey review each Sunday with the hashtag #SundayFundayReview. I hope you enjoy a few of my favorites and follow along on my page.
Peerless Single Barrel Bourbon, Durham County Store Pick
Nose – Burnt sugars attack your nose with some toffee and apples, then maple creeps in after some air gets in
Palate – Starts off like a Skor bar, light milk chocolate with heavy toffee. Vanillas and brown sugar are followed by a caramel covered cherry
Finish – You get a nice, long, warm hug and the candy bar flavor lingers
Buy, Try or Pass? – Not all single barrels are created equal. For most Peerless picks, I’m buying them. If you liked the sounds of this one, just realize that this is not even close to the best I’ve had.
Little Book Chapter 3, The Road Home
Nose – Little bit of musty wood up front rolls into brown sugar and vanilla. Dark red plum and a purple grape note
Palate – Toasted vanilla cream or even a crème brulee topped with cinnamon almond butter. Subtle fruity sweetness but can’t pinpoint what fruit it is. It’s dark.
Finish – Oily mouthfell sticks to all sides of your palate and tingles your gums. A warm Kentucky Hug reminds you of the high proof. Like a lot of Beam products, fading vanilla oak leaves you wanting another sip.
Buy, Try or Pass? – Little Books are typically going to be in the $110-130 price point and their recipes differ greatly. They’ve all been good, but I’d recommend trying before buying.
1792 Single Barrel
Nose – Caramel corn dusted with cinnamon sugar, super buttery bread, artificial banana similar to Runts candy or Laffy Taffy
Palate – Like a lot of 1792 products, all types of banana, but much brighter and cleaner than the nose. The first place my head went was to the Fresh Banana Cream Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. Take a slice of that and pour boozy caramel all over it, then place it on a piece of still-smoking toasted oak so the flavors permeate through the fluffy cheesecake.
Finish – Zero alcohol burn and no hug at all on this one, but sweet and creamy banana oaky goodness lasts for a few minutes demanding you to go back for more. Great pour!
Buy, Try or Pass? – BUY!! Whether it’s the standard shelf offering or a store pick, the Single Barrel is my favorite of the 1792 line and I’m buying if I see it!