Matters of Taste - Part One: True Bourbon Enjoyment
By F. Paul Pacult
Member Bourbon Hall of Fame
Tasting professionals each have their own manner of evaluating alcoholic beverages. One thing that the pros unanimously agree on is that sampling libations that are distilled at high proofs, like bourbon whiskey, is a different exercise from critiquing lower alcohol fermented beverages, such as beer and wine. The intensity of alcohol levels that range from 40 percent and up to as lofty as 65 percent automatically means that professional evaluations become more demanding.
Complex spirits, like bourbon whiskey, require more time for assessment than, say, a cabernet sauvignon, which is lower in alcohol and far less dense and complicated. With spirits, more time is needed in order to discern what other virtues and characteristics exist along with the alcohol. I've found that ordinary consumers can with relative facility apply some of the techniques that professionals employ for the purpose of deepening their own enjoyment. A few easily applied tasting guidelines can expand anyone's comprehension of the true, but often subtle make-up of fine spirits.
Let's begin with your sense of smell. Perhaps the most important piece of advice regarding the sense of smell is to leave your lips parted when sniffing a bourbon whiskey. By doing this, the taster circumvents the main thrust of alcohol, thereby, allowing the other qualities of the bourbon to be more readily noticed. Too big of a rush of alcohol can irritate the sensitive olfactory sense. Clearly, we want to avoid that situation.
Lips parted slightly, take a healthy inhalation. Relax for fifteen seconds and breathe out. Repeat the deep whiff. Exhale. Relax for fifteen seconds. Then ask yourself the following three questions. One: is the bourbon's aroma sweet, spicy or dry? Two: is it harsh inside the nasal cavity, or is it smooth and soothing? Three: does the oak barrel influence come across in the aroma in any of the following forms: wood resin (astringent), maple (bittersweet/sweet), honey (sweet), breakfast cereal (off-dry to semisweet), or vanilla bean (bittersweet)?
Since corn is the sweetest type of grain used in whiskey production, chances are you'll discover at least a hint of sweetness. The type and concentration of grainy sweetness varies from bourbon to bourbon. That's in large measure what makes the exploration of America's native spirit so compelling and for some consumers a lifelong passion. By doing this simple sniffing procedure, you've started on the path of greater bourbon whiskey enjoyment.
Next up, more thoughts on smelling bourbon as well as taking that crucial first sip.
Cheers until then, Paul