Bourbon 101: Breaking Down the Basics For Casual Connoisseurs
Bourbon—America’s only home-grown spirit—is booming! According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, bourbon production has increased more than 170 percent since 1999, a surge driven in part by more craft distilleries.
Whether you consider yourself a casual consumer or a connoisseur, you’ll find visiting a tasting room or whiskey bar, or even hosting your own tasting event, more enjoyable if you understand the basics.
What is Bourbon?
Federal regulations mandate that bourbon must be:
To be labeled as “straight” bourbon, it must be unblended and aged for at least two years. The charred oak barrels give bourbon its characteristic color and flavor, and they are what differentiate it from other whiskey (note the American and Irish spelling) or whisky (Scottish, Canadian and Japanese spelling). Nuances in flavor, among other factors, come from the proportions of other grains balanced with corn, commonly rye, wheat and/or malted barley.
Bourbon Tasting 101
Tasting bourbon (as opposed to drinking it) involves using all senses. There are generally four categories to consider: appearance, aroma, taste and finish. Here’s how to make the most of the experience:
- Hold the glass up to a light, give it a swirl and examine the bourbon’s color and opacity. It could range from honey to mahogany.
- Bring the glass to your nose and inhale, your lips slightly parted.
- Take a sip and move the bourbon around inside your mouth, inhaling through your nose and aiming to cover all areas of your tongue.
- Note any flavors and aromas you sense. Common flavors include vanilla, caramel and tobacco. Perhaps you sense floral or herbaceous notes, hints of berries or stone fruits.
- Swallow and then sense the finish — a flavor that sticks around for a while indicates a long finish. You might sense warmth, creaminess, a woody or toasty tone, or a noticeable delicacy.
- Be aware of the effects of aging. The longer a bourbon is aged, the deeper and more complex its flavor. Due to these factors, younger bourbons might be best enjoyed before a meal, with older bottles reserved for after meals.
- Don’t assume older bourbon is better. Age bourbon for too long, and discover how the flavor of the barrel becomes too dominant.
- When tasting bourbon, don’t pair it with food or tobacco. Both interfere with the flavors and impact your experience.
- Although bourbon purists claim it’s best taken straight, the option to add ice, whiskey rocks or a splash of water comes down to personal taste.
Interested in setting up a bourbon tasting with your buddies? Smith & Wollensky was recently named one of the 15 best places to go for bourbon in Columbus.
We also recommend giving the following Easton establishments a try: Mitchell’s Oceans Club and J. Alexander’s.
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