Assessing Bourbons

By Fred Minnick


In my job as a spirits evaluator, when I’m assessing bourbon at competitions or critiquing a brand for a magazine, I first analyze the color. The darker it is, the older the whiskey and the higher the proof; with each year in the aging barrel, the liquid gets a little darker. On the other hand, the more water added to lower the alcohol by volume or proof, the more diluted and the paler the color becomes. I score the whiskey’s color based on its vibrancy, richness, and occasional hues discovered in the swirl. Yes, that’s right—I’ll swirl the bourbon and analyze the legs. In wine, the legs are sometimes referred to as wine tears as they trickle down the glass and are shaped like tears. In bourbon, legs show character and complexity, offering a slight look into what oils survived distillation and filtration. Longtime Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell observed that the longer a bourbon’s legs, the more robust its flavors. I’ve also found the tighter or closer the legs, the more depth and character there is.

Once I’ve studied the bourbon legs, I stick my nose in the glass, open my mouth, and smell. By opening your mouth, you release the tension on your olfactory glands. Let’s face it: bourbon can bring some heat to the nose, especially when the spirit is more than 100 proof. With an open mouth, you can better breathe, cycle the alcohol fumes, and really assess the aroma. When you give your nose a chance, you might find more than 200 aromas known in bourbon, from allspice to white pepper.

For the taste, I enjoy feeling the spirit against my tongue and marking its particular flavor notes. Did the aromas match the notes on the palate? Or did the alcohol burn itself through the tongue? The alcohol burn is not preferred; you want to enjoy the taste of whiskey, not feel an acidic nightmare upon your lips. If you’re not accustomed to drinking spirits neat—meaning without ice or water—I recommend a splash of water or an ice cube so your tongue doesn’t burn too badly. There’s a difference between alcohol burn and spice, a character found in most bourbons that contain rye as a secondary grain.

Bourbon’s alcohol burn happens when the spirit penetrates down the middle of the tongue like a nine-volt battery and stings all the way down. With spice, you feel a slight tickle in much the same way a hot pepper would tickle the tongue. Once you’re accustomed to the spirit’s texture on the tongue, and understand the difference between burn and spice, you can analyze the subtleties in bourbon.

Bourbon’s flavor notes tend to skew toward age and mashbill. Or rather, these are the most common denominators that we as tasters can verify and compare in the tastings. Younger bourbons will have more grain notes, for example; high-rye bourbons, such as Four Roses, will typically pack an easy-to-identify cinnamon note. With that said, there is one note you should always find in bourbon if it’s at least two years old: caramel. If you cannot taste caramel in a straight bourbon, it’s flawed. The charred barrel used in aging imparts caramel and vanilla in every bourbon, even the bad ones.

As for the nuances you find in bourbon . . . this is where the process becomes fun. What you taste will be completely different than what a friend tastes. In professional whiskey circles, we all tend to pick up the same obvious notes, such as grain, caramel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla, but our identification of more complex notes varies widely. Legendary bartender Joy Perrine, author of The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book, finds bananas in Old Forester. Perrine used to live in the Caribbean, eating tropical fruits straight from the source; her palate and perception of bananas are much different than mine. As for me, I grew up in agriculture, raising hogs and horses. I’ll detail a grainy note that reminds me of the sweet feed I fed horses, and I’ll reference kid-friendly Jolly Rancher candy.

In other words, as tasters, we have no recourse but to trust our instincts. Your taste buds and memory are intertwined, and bourbon will tap into your taste bud memories. The lesson here: the tasting experience is all about you.

Michael Eman
Official Contributor
Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Bourbon+ magazine, Thrillist, and Alcohol Professor.