In previous posts, Forrest and I have seriously evaluated the taste, nose, and texture of the bourbons that we have reviewed. But the difference between a bourbon “drinker” and a bourbon “taster” is an important distinction that should be made. You could choke down any old swill, but bourbon deserves to be properly tasted. That means we need to acquaint ourselves with our sense of taste. Here’s how to do it, minus the snobbery.
Put It In Your Mouth
When it comes to our sense of taste, we generally sense sweet, salt, sour, and bitter in varying degrees. For the most part, the distilling process removes much of the salt taste from bourbon, so we will instead focus on sweetness, sourness, and bitterness. These tastes are registered on different parts of the tongue, so the easiest way to evaluate these tastes is to do that old “Kentucky chew”. Take a sip of bourbon and roll it around on your tongue so that a little lands in each of the tongues regions.
The very first region of the tongue registers sweetness, so that is usually the first taste that you might recognize. If not, stick the tip of your tongue into your glass (if the mouth of the glass is wide enough) and reevaluate. Bourbon is made from corn primarily, so it shouldn’t be much of a challenge to detect some sweetness either up front or in the bourbon’s finish.
Next, evaluate the sourness of the whiskey. Swish the whiskey to the middle and sides of your tongue and note the mouth-watering effects. Try evaluating two bourbons side-by-side (like Johnny Drum and Early Times 354) to get a good range of sour tastes.
Finally, we come to the bitter end. Most bourbons actually carry a good amount of bitterness in their structure as a result of tannins left behind by the barrel. Definitely not a bad thing, and oftentimes serves to ‘dry out’ your mouth in a good way.
Bourbon Body and Structure
Just like wine, different bourbons have different bodies (also known as weights, levels of viscosity, or texture). Think of the difference between heavy cream, whole milk, and nonfat milk – they all have a type of slipperiness and fluidity to them. Same with bourbons.
Some bourbons are thick and heavy, sitting on your palate like syrup (think Michters). Other bourbons are very light bodied and almost evaporate on your tongue (think Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old). Then there are bourbons with the texture of rusty barbed-wire (yes, Old Crow, I’m talking about you). When you do the “Kentucky chew”, note how the bourbon sticks on your tongue, the roof of your mouth, and your teeth and gums.
If you are familiar with wine lingo, you have heard the term “structure” used to describe the interplay of different elements within the wine. Bourbon shares a certain complexity with wine in that the flavor of both are influenced by their ingredients – in this case, the grain that go into the whiskey and bourbon – , their barrels, and their environment. When you describe the heat and the finish of a bourbon, you are in actuality talking about its structure. A nice balanced structure carries enough heat to wake you up, but enough flavor to mellow out the proof.
Now we come to the finale of the bourbon tasting experience – the finish. “Finish” describes how long the taste of the bourbon lasts in your mouth. Note the length of the aftertaste and the different flavors that arise. High quality bourbons usually have long finishes with a nice concentration of different flavors. I’ve always said that one of the primary reasons for even drinking bourbon in the first place is for the finish, so this isn’t a part of the tasting that should be overlooked!
To evaluate the finish, take another small sip of your preferred whiskey, swish it around the mouth for a few seconds and then swallow. How does it affect your palate? Is the finish short or long? Is it dry or oily? Is it warm and pleasant or hot and irritating? You might find it easier to describe what you think if you are in the presence of other bourbon tasters. Different palates perceive tastes differently, so your company might be able to point out flavors in the finish that you miss!
So that’s it! You should be just as proficient at tasting bourbon as the most experienced of us out there. In a later article, we will hone those skills with a discussion on exactly where bourbons and whiskeys get their range of tastes and flavors. We will also introduce you to a whiskey tasting wheel that will help you pin down some exotic flavors – like sweat and cooked ham. (Not joking.)
Until then, subscribe to us using the block below and start a discussion with us in the comments section!