‘Any Way She Likes It’

That was the name of an educational tasting session led by master taster Peggy Noe Stevens, founder of the Bourbon Women Association, at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Ky., on Friday. The sold-out event drew women (and a few significant others) from all over: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, D.C., California and England.

Peggy first gave us a quick lesson in bourbon’s “flavor influencers,” including the grains, the yeast and the wood (“think of the barrel staves as big blocks of sugar”). Women have a keen olfactory sense, she said – more so than men. To get us thinking about four areas of flavor in bourbon, she had us sniff the contents of four jars on the table (from left below): smoked salt (savory, from the char), apple cider (fruit notes), vanilla (sweetness) and cinnamon (spices).

Now it was time for the fun part: tasting. We sampled three premium brands, using our newly enhanced vocabulary to describe what we smelled and tasted. The first bourbon was lightest in color and flavor profile, with some cinnamon and apricot/citrus notes. The second was much spicier and more savory, with notes of raisin or cherry and an earthy, dry finish. The third was very rich, with a nutty nose and butterscotch/honeyed pecan flavor – and despite the fact that it was the highest in proof at nearly 130, it had a remarkably smooth, sweet finish. (This was a blind tasting, and Peggy didn’t reveal the names of the bourbons, but I’m going to guess Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and maybe… Bookers? It will be fun to do additional research on that one.)

Finally, Peggy talked about pairing bourbon with food. First, determine the dominant flavors of the bourbon, then decide whether to balance those flavors, counterbalance them, or “explode” them, she said. She demonstrated these three approaches by having us try the orange with our first citrus-y bourbon, which resulted in a taste like a whiskey sour; some Parmesan cheese with our second bourbon, whose smoky profile elevated and brightened the somewhat bland flavor of the cheese; and finally, dark chocolate with our rich third bourbon, whose nutty flavor deepened the chocolate and resulted in a taste like an almond-chocolate candy bar.

Other helpful hints from Peggy: If you have trouble tasting the fruit notes in bourbon, which can be overpowered by the alcohol, add a little water and try again. Wonder if you’re drinking a premium bourbon? The proof, so to speak, is in the finish. “My father used to say that a really great bourbon will wrap your tongue like a satin ribbon.”

Our session concluded with a “Bourbon Berry,” a special “sensory surround-sound” cocktail created by Joy Perrine, longtime bartender at Jack’s Lounge in Louisville, that combined a strawberry bourbon infusion with pink lemonade, ginger ale and lemon.

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The Bourbon Babe

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