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Whisk(e)y Reviews

June 2020

Bourbon Tasting: Going Beyond the Buzz


What can I say about tasting that hasn’t already been said? That is the first thought that came to my mind when I was given the task of trying to teach you the readers how to taste bourbon. Should I delve into the process and the mash and the water? Should I go on and on about the bourbon tasting wheel and tell you to try bunches of sensory kits? Should I just say the heck with it and tell you to drink how you like?


Finally, I came to the conclusion what if you’ve always wanted to be able to taste more but just didn’t know what to do. With that thought, it became clear that I needed to give this a shot and go over my own bourbon tasting basics. 

Bob’s Bourbon Tasting Basics

  • Glassware

    • It’s important get at least a fluted top, is it absolutely necessary? No, it isn’t but if you’re just getting into notes and trying to taste bourbon the glasses are not all equal. I prefer the glencairn and the Canadian glen.

  • Control the volume

    • What I mean is you will have better results tasting in smaller amounts. Don’t over do it and burn out your palate with big gulps, save that for later.

  • Slow Down.

    • I understand if you’re in a rush and need to hit a couple chugs but if you want to taste and get notes you need to slow down. The bourbon must have time to pass over and coat your tongue. This isn’t a race and all parts of your mouth get to play along from the flavors on your tongue to the sensations all over your palate. A good rule of thumb is to “chew” your whiskey or hold it in your mouth for as many seconds as the bourbon is years old. Example: 12 years=12 seconds, remember this is a loose example but try to keep the bourbon in contact with your mouth because your stomach and throat cant taste.

  • Build up that tolerance

    • For me it took some time to be able to handle high proof neat bourbon, emphasis on the neat, however you can get there eventually even if you like a little water or ice in your drink. It should be mentioned that coldness dampens flavor. All I can tell you is you need to practice. Much like the spice in hot foods the spice from the alcohol can be tamed and you can begin to enjoy the whiskey more than the alcohol. Remember step #2 small sips, you need to get your mouth trained not your ability to stay conscious with a high BAC. 

  • Learn the language

    • At this point you’re able to recognize some flavors and you can sip, shoot, or chug your whiskey while still enjoying it. The next part is looking over the bourbon flavor wheel or just going off of you past experiences and trying to connect those flavors to your bourbon. Many people will tell you taste is subjective but if we all learn the language we can better explain ourselves and have even more fun with our hobby.

  • Taste is Subjective

    • I can’t fully convey to you what my grandmas apple pie tastes like but I can say this bourbon reminds me of it. Everyone has their own take on flavors I encourage you to trust your own palate. Mess with triangle tasting where you have 3 glasses of bourbon and 2 are the exact same thing. Compare your written tasting notes and this will tell you a lot about how your brain perceives flavor. Don’t forget blind tastings!

All the steps are laid out - now it is simply up to you to complete the rest of the journey. Remember to have fun with it and take your time. It can be easy to have palate fatigue when tasting many bourbons and keep in mind that if you really want to get flavors drink the same whiskey the same way multiple times.


You can mess with palate cleansers like crackers or nuts to try and amplify your experience too if you’d like. It is very possible that you’re just good at tasting but chances are like most you will need continued exposure with some time to think about your whiskey to get all the notes you see in a review.


Try new things. The more you expand your knowledge of flavors, the more tools you will have to help you describe the whiskey you drink.


Just for fun, here are some of the more distinct notes I can think of in readily available bourbons. Jim Beam has a distinct peanut taste, Makers Mark is very leather and cinnamon, Heaven Hill has a nutty vanilla vibe, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace are often fruity with cherry and stone fruit. Good luck and happy tasting!