I once had the great good fortune to participate as Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve, created two Personal Selections for Bluegrass Hospitality Group. We started with 10 samples, narrowed that to four, combined those into six new blends and finally chose the two winners.
As we sampled, Chris explained to us what we were tasting. Bourbon has five areas of flavor: the sweet aromatics (caramel, vanilla, butterscotch); fruit and floral notes (berries, cherries, banana); spices, both brown (nutmeg, coffee, tobacco) and green (licorice, spearmint); wood (oak, pecan); and grain (corn, rye).
I can easily find the sweet aromatics, the wood and the grain. The brown spices come easier to me than the green, although I have occasionally tasted the mint in a bourbon. But… banana?
Recently I asked Chris for tips on how to develop my palate. Here’s what he said:
“The best practice for a consumer is, if the company has developed good taste notes, get copies of the taste notes from their website – ‘This is what Woodford tastes like,’ or whatever. Don’t buy a whole bottle, but when you’re out at a bar, get a neat sample of that product and with your taste notes in hand, see if you can recognize what the notes for that whiskey are. Keep a spiral notebook going, and just compare notes. ‘Jimmy Russell says this.’ Hmmm. If he says that, this is what it smells like, this is what it tastes like.”
One good way to sample several bourbons at a time is to order a bourbon flight. I asked Chris for his advice on how to choose the components of a flight.
“You don’t want to try a variety of bourbons, like Maker’s and Woodford and Bookers. You’ll be able to tell the big differences, because they are very different, but you very quickly are going to lose the subtleties because of the alcohol content.
“That’s almost like saying, I’m gonna try a zinfandel, a pinot noir and a cabernet savignon. You’re going to get confused very quickly.
“I like tasting the families. Taste three Old Foresters, or three Turkeys, or three Four Roses, and see how the same product is changed or has been expressed differently.”
(Photo courtesy Brown-Forman)