Appreciating Your Whiskey | Tasting Notes Explained


whiskey tasting; tasting notes; bourbon

Whether you're in your garage bar, your home bar, sitting out in the back forty with cousin Fred, the great uniting truth about whiskey is that no matter the occasion or the company, it brings folks together. Granted, other spirits also bring folks together but I'm not talking about that hazy college bar and too many vodka sodas. People don't write about or talk about vodka, tequila or other spirits the same way that whiskey is ruminated over. It's an interesting spirit in that way.


When I think about what whiskey has meant to me and how my tastes for it have evolved over the years, it's quite the affair. I think, rather unfortunately I was slow to come around and really appreciate whiskey. When I drank it in my early drinking days it was God awful, eliciting a head to toe repulsion that I simply couldn't get past. The scientist in me didn't realize at the time that the visceral reaction I was having was simply nerve receptors called polymodal pain receptors firing away due to overstimulation - alerting my body through the feeling of pain. I eventually would commit to working past this barrier, having a little whiskey each day and finding myself now in a place where I can enjoy every sip, picking out flavors and notes that I'd not otherwise dreamt I'd be able to discern. Little did I know, I'd love it so much that I'd become a Certified Bourbon Professional (CBP).


With that introduction, certainly, there are several universal measures by which to connect over that snort of whiskey in the glass, which I'd like to walk you through here.


Brown Water for Beginners

First and foremost before I get started, please set aside your personal preference for how YOU enjoy your whiskey. I was guilty of thinking for some time that THE ONLY WAY to enjoy whiskey the RIGHT WAY was neat. The addition of water, insinuated weakness...alas, I was a fool. It's not always in your best interest to add water however - in some scotches for instance it can bring out a meaty note...pass...and in some bourbons it can dilute the spirit in such a way that you may miss some of the more subtle notes. You can always add water, you can't ever take it back. Water can however help make whiskey easier to drink for newbies by lowering the proof - but - it also can release some of the more fruity notes found in whiskey associated with esters that are otherwise imprisoned by the ethanol at higher proofs.


What's in a Glass | The 3 Components of Whiskey Tasting

There's a fair bit to discover once you pour your whiskey - some whiskey's may even taste different drinking when they're first poured compared to having set for awhile. To me, discussing what's in a glass is the fun part of bourbon.


Color: By law, here in the states whiskey is not allowed to have coloring or flavor added. What you see is the product of what came from the barrel. Because by federal regulation also, whiskey is aged in new charred oak barrels, it picks up color pretty fast. I find the most interest, viewing color between the same bottles of single barrel expressions and contrasting those which show marked difference - beyond that and gazing at my impressive whiskey collection illuminated by the amazing light from my custom bar shelves which are available here, I generally don't care toooo much about color.


Nose: Every one of us has had a lifetime of varied experiences, which, have armed us each with a unique individualistic library of smells that we tap into every waking minute of our life. It's what makes tastings so interesting amongst friends - "I get a whiff of apple" - "I don't get that at all, I smell caramel." We're all coming together drawing from a different set of experiences - so be open to the conversation and recognize that you may not smell what your friend(s) smell, and that's ok -- you may also have COVID so please get that checked out.


Palate: When we taste something, our nose has a lot to do with it. As that sip of whiskey enters our mouth it begins to vaporize due to the heat from our body. As that liquid becomes a gas, it's carried up our nose where we catch the various aromatics in the solution. To me, this is the most exciting part of the whiskey experience. I used to often find myself sitting there, half perplexed, trying to reconcile what that taste was that I simply couldn't put my finger on. Do yourself a favor and print off the American Bourbon Association's Tasting Wheel (here) which will really help you as you try to dissect what it is your tasting (err, smelling) in your glass.


Become a Bourboneur


For me, whiskey tasting is an experience, best enjoyed with good company. As your palate for whiskey matures, you'll start to savor it more with every tasting and appreciate the nuances of each glass. Become a Bourboneur and join the conversation on Instagram, Facebook, and yes, even TikTok. Find tasting tips, garage bar design, and specialty bar items at bourboneur.com.

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