Finding Bourbon: My First Taste

Story by Kevin Gibson


My first memory of trying bourbon after years of ignoring it is of sitting with a pair of work friends in a Dallas bar. One friend bought me a bourbon and insisted I try it. I don’t remember what it was, but I believe his go-to at the time was Woodford Reserve.

I tried two or three sips before telling him I’d had enough. All I could taste was alcohol, I told him. Strangely sweet-tasting alcohol. I waved it away, convinced I’d been smart to avoid bourbon all along.

He pleaded with me to search for the nuances, added ice to my pour to help open it up for me. My palate simply didn’t climb on board, for whatever reason.

Anyway, he rolled his eyes, and I ordered another beer.

This was long before the current bourbon boom, of course; it was circa 2000. Things are different now, but I’m a late comer to bourbon. I stubbornly resisted, focusing my attention on craft beer, even as people I met would say, “Oh, you’re from Kentucky. You must love bourbon.”

“Nope!” I would defiantly tell them. “I’m a beer guy!” I probably sounded like an idiot. I still love beer, but thinking one must be chosen over another is like arguing over colors. It’s OK to have blue shirts and green shirts in your closet.

But I digress.

That Dallas experience wasn’t a stand-alone in that era. A couple of years later, I was attending a wine tasting at a museum in Indiana and came upon a table operated by a distillery. The tasting was Pappy Van Winkle, across the board. I decided I’d try bourbon again. I tried them all, and yes, I did have a few sips of Pappy 23 year that day. I was mostly unmoved by the experience.

I know, I know. This was liquid which had been distilled in the late 1980s – old-school, primo stuff. I do remember liking it enough that I tried each offering, including 10, 12 and 20 year. I noted it was seemingly more pleasing than what I had tried in Dallas, but apparently it wasn’t pleasing enough that I wanted to explore more. Shame I didn’t buy a couple of bottles and hide them away, eh?

So here it is, all those years later, and I’m finally catching back up to bourbon. I’m still a relative beginner, but I’m getting there. It was maybe five years ago when another friend took me through an informal bourbon-tasting in an attempt to jump-start my beer-soaked palate.

During that tasting, as he coached me to look not just for vanilla and caramel, but campfire, leather and other notes, I remember saying something like, “I just don’t understand how you’re getting all those flavors.”

Memory can be unreliable, but I’m pretty sure he rolled his eyes the same way my work friend had done in Dallas years earlier. The difference is this friend was Fred Minnick, the editor-in-chief of Bourbon+, and he hasn’t given up on the notion of bourbon and me forming a friendship.

Sometimes, I still don’t quite access the many flavors to be found in bourbon. But one sip at a time, it’s opening up for me. I’ve taken an aromatics class, I’ve done numerous distillery tours and tastings. I did the Woodford flavor wheel with Chris Morris himself.

It was that day with Morris, when I first tried Woodford’s Double Oaked, that something broke through. Chocolate. I was getting chocolate in bourbon. How? This blew my mind – a double dose of charred oak somehow led my palate to chocolate? I was dismayed when we were told there were no bottles of Double Oaked for sale that day at the distillery, because I absolutely would have pulled the trigger. But that experience was the next step my palate needed. Something clicked that day, finally.

These days, I’m tasting my way through various bourbons across the board, catching up as best I can amongst a dizzying market that only seems to be getting more complex every day. At home, I’m sipping Russell’s Reserve 10 year. It’s a start.

A couple of days a week I work at a part-time gig leading others through bourbon tastings. I’m learning along with the people I’m helping, and many of the people I meet through this exercise are like me in 2000 in that Dallas bar. Many of the simply don’t know what they’re supposed to be tasting.

And because my memory of being right where they are is still relatively fresh, I’m not rolling my eyes. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?

Kevin Gibson
Official Contributor

Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Thrillist and Alcohol Professor. He also is author of Louisville Beer, Secret Louisville, and several other books. In his three decades as a professional writer, he has won numerous awards but doesn’t know where most of them are now (they're probably in the basement). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his dog, Atticus.