By gavincaganoff / July 21, 2022 /
How to Taste Bourbon: A Beginner's Guide
You like bourbon—it’s one of your go-to drinks. But when it comes to tasting actual flavor differences in different types of bourbon, it’s all the same… You like the brand you buy and everything you’ve tried just tastes like bourbon. All these crazy people using terms like nose, flavor notes, and finish when describing bourbons are just making stuff up, right? Regrettably, that’s what I used to think.    But I couldn’t have been more wrong.   Bourbon (especially good bourbon) has an incredibly complex flavor profile.  Some bourbons taste fruity, some have notes of chocolate or toffee, and some can be super spicy and peppery. And detecting those subtle flavors is a skill—one you can only develop through proper practice. Practice drinking bourbon? Sign me up. Acquiring this skill is incredibly fun and unlocks a world of complex flavors you didn’t even know were there before. I definitely recommend it. Here’s how you can get started with proper bourbon tasting so you can better appreciate America’s native spirit.  

Bourbon Tasting 101: 8 Steps to Start Tasting Your Bourbon

Step 1. Understand the terms.

There are four critical terms you need to know before you start your journey to tasting bourbon:
  1. Color
This obviously refers to bourbon’s appearance. But the key thing to know is how color impacts flavor. As I explain in my post on how bourbon gets its color, darker bourbons usually have heavier flavor profiles because of their storage conditions and older age. On the flip side, if your bourbon is lighter your flavor will usually also be lighter.
  1. Nose
This refers to how bourbon smells. Since our sense of smell is much stronger than that of taste, it’s critical to “nose” your bourbon before you take a sip. “Nosing” is when you put your nose partway into your glass (preferably a Glencairn) and sniff with your mouth slightly parted (more on this later). Doing this is critical to detecting flavor notes.
  1. Palate/Taste
This refers to how bourbon tastes on your tongue. When you taste bourbon instead of drinking it, you focus on detecting flavor notes (which means savoring small sips).
  1. Finish
This refers to how a bourbon feels when you swallow it. A short finish means the sensations you felt after swallowing went away quickly, a long finish means they lingered.  

Step 2. Pick the right glass.

  Now that you’re up to speed on the terminology, it’s time to pick the right bourbon glass. This is a surprisingly critical part of bourbon tasting. The best glasses are usually those with bowls because they help you smell the bourbon while tasting it (which unleashes the flavor notes). That’s why bourbon experts recommend using a Glencairn or NEAT glass. It seems nitpicky on the surface to hear you “have to” buy a certain glass to properly taste bourbon, but it actually does make a huge difference. Glasses (like the rocks glass) that don’t direct aromas to your nose can mask flavor notes.  

Step 3. Nose your glass.

Pour a half-ounce or so into your Glencairn glass and hold it up to your nose before you take a sip.  Make sure your nose is barely inside of the glass and take several breaths with your mouth partly open. Keeping your mouth open is critical to capturing all your bourbon’s aromas. Your first several sniffs will smell guessed it, alcohol. Then, you’ll begin to smell notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak.  This is common with almost all bourbons because of the new charred oak barrels they’re aged in. As you continue to nose your bourbon, try to move past these standard smells and pay close attention to the much more subtle notes. Bourbon can contain all kinds of notes, including:
  • Hazelnut
  • Almond
  • Coffee
  • Toffee
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Tobacco
  • Honey
  • Chocolate
  • Maple syrup
  • Mint
  • Cinnamon
  • And more
Try to determine 1-2 specific notes before you take your first sip.  

Step 4. Let the bourbon sit on your tongue.

It’s finally time to actually drink the bourbon. Take a small sip of your glass and immediately hold it on your tongue. Let it sit there for 5-10 seconds while you pay close attention to the flavors, then swallow it while continuing to focus on the taste. You usually have to follow this process 2 or more times to be able to detect most of the flavor notes (especially if you’re a beginner). Another way you can do this is called the Kentucky Chew. Here, you follow the same exact process but instead of letting the bourbon sit on your tongue, you swish it around in your mouth. This is the “proper” way to taste bourbon but be will light your mouth on fire.  

Step 5. Write it down.

If you’re really serious about tasting bourbon, you can start a tasting notebook. Bourbon aficionados often use a notepad or journal to keep track of bourbons they’ve tried and what notes they detected. This helps you refine your palate and become even better at tasting specific notes in your bourbon.  

Step 6. Look up the flavor notes.

Now that you’ve tried tasting your bourbon, I recommend Googling to find the tasting notes of the particular brand and type you tasted. Chances are, you’ll be surprised at some of the notes they say are present. This is really helpful because knowing what you’re supposed to taste helps you look for it when you try it again. And as you repeat this process you’ll start figuring out how to distinguish those specific notes (like saying something tastes like apple rather than “fruity”).  

Step 7. Taste it again, but with a twist.

Now, follow this process again with the same bourbon but add a few drops of water to the mix. Water can actually allow new flavors and aromas to develop that weren’t there before. Sometimes with just a few drops of water, the same bourbon can become vastly different. Be careful not to put too much water in it, though. Anything more than a few drops can dilute your bourbon—toning down all the flavor notes significantly.  

Step 8. Try your next bourbon.

If you’re tasting more than one bourbon in a session, it’s super important to cleanse your palate in between with a sip of water. This helps you make sure your previous tasting doesn’t impact your current one. Another helpful tip when trying multiple bourbons is drinking from lowest to highest proof.  This helps make sure the power of the higher proof doesn’t overwhelm your tongue from the start and impact your other tastings. (Pro tip: the “A Bite of Bourbon” gift basket is a great way to get your hands on several bourbons .)  

Tasting Bourbon Is an Art

It takes time and practice to develop a refined palate for bourbon. You can’t expect to start guessing tasting notes in a blind taste test from day one. But acquiring this skill is well worth the effort if you enjoy and appreciate bourbon. Because once you can taste the subtle notes, you’ll be able to actually tell the difference in the thousands of bourbons you have to choose from. And then, all your friends will think you’re super cool. :) -- Hunter Branch is the owner of Bourbon Inspectora blog designed to help you find great bourbons, accessories, and ways to enjoy America’s native spirit.