Matters of Taste - Part Three: True Bourbon Enjoyment
By F. Paul Pacult
Member Bourbon Hall of Fame
Having thoroughly discussed in our two previous visits how to gauge a bourbon whiskey's qualities by the employment of the sense of smell, now it's time to finally take a sip. All that's required is two ounces poured into a stemmed, wine glass. While I explained the last time how smell influences taste, the taste buds nevertheless detect all sorts of other sensory properties that our olfactory apparatus, meaning our nasal cavity, can never perceive.
It's our taste buds, for instance, that sense the "feel" the texture of a bourbon whiskey. In other words, as a half-ounce of bourbon (the amount that I consider a sip) rests on our tongue does it feel silky smooth, harsh, thick, or oily? When a bourbon's silky smooth on the tongue that's a good sign, an indicator that the whiskey in question is in balance. A harmonious bourbon whiskey is one where all the various foundational components, specifically, alcohol, acid, wood influence and grain, fit well and are melded into one overall flavor experience. So, smooth is a positive sign.
Harsh, and by that I mean a kind of raw, prickly, burning sense on the tongue, can mean that the whiskey is slightly off-balance with a bit too much emphasis on the alcohol. But, let's be clear, harshness/rawness is far different from the pleasant warmth that most upper echelon premium and super-premium bourbon whiskeys emit.
Top-notch "small batch" bourbons, like Baker's, Knob Creek or Booker's Bourbon, for example, are purposely bottled high in alcohol because that is their particular style. Booker's Bourbon especially needs to be diluted with mineral or spring water for the purpose of enhancing its multitude of flavor levels. When cut with water, Booker's is about as smooth and luscious as fine bourbon can get.
When a bourbon whiskey feels "thick" or "oily", it means that the glycerin level in that whiskey is particularly high. Glycerin is a sweet, viscous byproduct of fats and oils. When grains are made into a mash for fermenting and, later on, for distilling, some of the natural oils found in the grains (corn, rye, barley) remain. When those oils are concentrated, glycerin, a whiskey's thickness or butteriness, is evident, even to a bourbon neophyte. This situation, in terms of like/dislike, often comes down to stylistic preference by the drinker, as well as gender. I personally don't mind heavy-bodied bourbons.
Next up on our bourbon appreciation tour: learning how to savor bourbon whiskey. Until then, stay safe by drinking responsibly at all times, under all situations.