What do you smell when you sniff a good whiskey? Caramel? Vanilla? Oak? How about children's chewable vitamins? Rotten peaches? Or fresh-picked carrots?
"Nosing" can be almost as much fun as tasting bourbon.
We asked two bourbon experts, Mike Veach and Susan Reigler, to give us a guided tour of the bourbon palate.
Veach is the Filson Historical Society's official bourbon historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, An American Heritage. Reigler, a former food and travel writer for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, just released Kentucky Bourbon Country, The Essential Travel Guide and co-authored The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book with bartender Joy Perrine.
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Veach and Reigler are working on a bourbon tasting book together, which is expected to come out sometime next year.
Both are well-versed in the arts of drawing flavors out of a glass of bourbon and in putting together the perfect whiskey tasting.
"Put a little planning into it," Veach said. "Decide on a theme."
Do you want to compare traditional bourbons to ones that are "wheated," made with sweeter wheat instead of spicier rye grain? Maybe try the same bourbons but of different ages — or reverse that to try different bourbons but all the same age. High-proof bourbons are in fashion right now, so how about comparing the same bourbon family but at different levels of alcohol by volume?
Veach suggested limiting a tasting to four or five different whiskies.
"Once you get past four, you're really starting to lose your taste buds," he said.
He and Reigler recommend using Glencairn glasses, a curvy, narrow-topped, short whiskey glass that concentrates the aromas coming off the bourbon in a way that typical wide-mouthed old-fashioned glasses cannot. They look a bit like a large cordial glass or narrow snifter.
"Basically, you're looking for something that's funneling it right to your nose," Veach said.
As professional bourbon tasters, they are puritanical: no perfume, aftershave or scented candles, please.
What's the best music for a bourbon tasting?
"None," Reigler said. "You want to concentrate. No distractions. Now, after the tasting, go for it."
When it comes to tasting bourbon, everyone is different, they say.
"It's highly subjective," Reigler said.
But just because you don't get something right away, don't give up.
"All it takes is a little practice and paying attention," Reigler said.
She sometimes gives people a list of descriptors to get them started.
"Then once they get the flavor, they know it," she said.
And keep an open mind.
"There is no wrong answer in bourbon tasting," Veach said. "If you taste black olives, you taste black olives."
Veach and Reigler start by looking at the color in the glass.
"The color will tell you age and proof," Veach said. The darker the whiskey, the older and higher the proof.
Then, nose it.
Try swirling the glass to warm the bourbon, or give it a "cuddle," hugging it to your chest, Veach said.
Take a good sniff, with your mouth open just a bit.
"What flavors do you get?" Reigler said. "The benchmark flavors of bourbon are vanilla and caramel. You'll find that in practically all bourbons but in different proportions. Some are very caramel-y, almost to the point of chocolate. Some hit you over the head with vanilla, but there may be lots of other notes. So start thinking of fruits, spices, nuts."
Veach's five categories read like a walk through a village:
■ "The wood shop": oak, pecan, hazelnut, cedar.
■ "The fruit stand": citrus, cherries, berries, dates, apples, pears, bananas, apricots.
■ "The candy shop": vanilla, caramel, cloves, anise or licorice.
■ "The spice shop": cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper.
■ "The floral shop": rose, honeysuckle, lilac.
If you smell those flavors, then thank the yeasts, Veach said.
Each distillery uses proprietary strains of yeast to make its bourbon. The yeast consumes the sugar released after the grains are cooked with malted barley, and turns the sugar into alcohol. Along the way, the yeast makes a wide variety of other chemical compounds, some of which are identical to the esters that make fruit smell like fruit, and roses smell like roses.
About this time, a guest asks, "Do we ever get to taste this?"
Finally, time for the main event: Take a sip.
Let it roll over your tongue and swallow.
Sometimes the first sip stings the taste buds a bit, so it's the second one that you need to really pay attention to.
Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe recommends the "Kentucky chew," a sort of open-mouthed smacking to mix a little air in and let the flavors develop. It's inelegant but effective: Anyone who knows anything about bourbon will think you savvy, not rude, when you do it.
So what do you think? Do you get a wide variety of flavors?
Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris says you have to push past the basic vanilla and caramel and reach for the underlying notes — like really listening, but with your tongue.
If it is too strong, add a little water. That can open up the flavor and bring out fruitier tones.
Get the plate of nibbles: Try a bit of dried fruit, or a nut. Then taste the whiskey again.
A whole new taste might unfold. Eating dark chocolate can create rich, new depths in the bourbon; Parmesan cheese brings out the butter.
Maybe all you get is a basic "bourbon" taste. It doesn't really matter, the experts said.
The only thing that matters: Did you like it?
"The fun of 200 bourbons is that everyone is going to find one they like," Reigler said.
No two tastes are alike
Kentucky archaeologist Carl Shields has hosted many a bourbon tasting among his friends, usually fellow archaeologists. His "Whiskey Diggers" Facebook page chronicles the results of tasting adventures.
He likes to sip bourbon at home in Lexington in the evening while doing some professional research: dissecting "LiDAR" (stands for light detection and ranging) topography data, to look for Indian mounds and earthworks across the state.
"I'm having incredible results. I've found a couple dozen," Shields said. "I've visually inspected 1,300 square miles at an incredibly small scale. That's a lot of bourbon."
For him, the fun is in sharing his finds, good and bad. Often what doesn't work for him will be a hit with someone else, he said.
"I've got a friend who calls me up and says, 'Carl, I had a bourbon I absolutely hate, so I think you'd like it.'" And sometimes he's right.
Recently, Shields conducted his most formal event, with blind tastings and not one but two "doubles" to see if people could tell that they were drinking the same thing twice.
A few were daunted at first by the note-taking but after the first sip, "they were into it," Shields said. "Swirling, tasting, adding water, nibbling on dark chocolate."
So were they able to tell what they were drinking?
"Some were right on the money, but most were off. I was off," Shields said. "My taste buds lie to me. I rarely get to those really great flavors — I don't taste that kumquat. I don't."
WHAT YOU'LL NEEDFor our recent bourbon tasting with Mike Veach and Susan Reigler, we assembled these bourbons, food and supplies.
Bourbons and whiskies
Here are two menus Veach suggests. If you want to go on your own, he suggests only four or five different whiskies; beyond that, taste buds will be dulled. Everything for one menu cost less than $150 at Liquor Barn in Lexington.
Traditional vs. wheated bourbons: Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year (86 proof) and Old Forester Signature (100), which are traditional, versus W.L. Weller Special Reserve (90) and Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond (100), which are wheated.
American whiskey sampler, showing a range of U.S. whiskies: Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year bourbon (86 proof), Old Fitzgerald 1849 bourbon (90), Bulleit Rye Whiskey (90), Mellow Corn Bottled-in-Bond straight corn whiskey (100) and George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whiskey (90).
Arrange these foods on each taster's plate so they can see how the bourbons' taste is affected:
Nuts, such as walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts. We used pecans at our tasting.
Dark chocolate. Preferably a good-quality brand. We used Chocomize 100 percent Belgian chocolate.
Dried fruit, such as cherries or cranberries, which we used.
Aged Parmesan cheese, cut into nibble-size pieces.
Sorghum. You can put it on a plain, unflavored cracker or, as we did, a bagel chip.
Orange slices. The fresh fruit, not the old-fashioned candy.
Glasses with a narrow top. Veach and Reigler say the best are curvy, narrow-topped Glencairn glasses, but white wine glasses (the tulip-shaped ones) will work.
Water. Also supply straws or spoons so you can add just a little to your whiskey.
Dump bucket. Have something to spit and pour excess whiskey into. The object is to taste, not to get drunk.
Plain crackers, bagel chips or bread. This will help neutralize the palate.
Party food, for after the tasting. Because you want everyone to enjoy themselves but go home sober.