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A Guide to Identifying Bourbon Notes

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A Guide to Identifying Bourbon Notes
Photo by Hayley Phillips

A few weeks ago, I awoke to a cold morning but was instantly comforted with thoughts of the fiery-smooth whiskey that would soon be warming my throat. Walking down one of many, many green rolling hills in Versailles, Kentucky, the Woodford Reserve Distillery spread before us, a collection of stone buildings that looked as old as the valley itself. Barrels rolled past us on a set of tracks like a miniature railroad, destined to take the whiskey from the storehouse to the bottling hall.

The tour itself was brief as it had begun to drizzle, so we retired to the tasting hall where Chef Ouita Michel awaited with a delicious dinner spread and Master Distiller Chris Morris was kind enough to give us a demo on making a great mint julep. “It’s not a cocktail, it’s a mash,” he reminded us.

It was then that Chef Ouita introduced us to a bourbon tasting note wheel, something akin to an artist’s color wheel, giving imbibers a visual layout of the notes found in whiskey.  “People always say notes of orange or vanilla,” she explained, “but I was having trouble distinguishing flavors on the finish. The vocabulary just didn’t match the experience of the notes… so we developed this program.”

A plate was brought out with an assortment of foods that would serve as the gateway for us to identify flavors: a hearty parmesan reggiano, some toasted hazelnuts, a slice of orange, a few dried cranberries, some dark chocolate cocoa nibs and some delicious sorghum. Then, of course, the glass of bourbon. As Chris and Ouita led us through the tasting, I realized that my own experience drinking whiskey was quite limited. While I enjoyed the occasional glass of bourbon on the rocks, I rarely stopped to smell or savor the way I would a glass of wine. And yet whiskeys, like wines, have their own notes and flavor profiles, are aged in barrels, and can taste differently when paired with different foods.

Parmesan Reggiano – This was a great combination, possibly my favorite. The richness and saltiness of the cheese muted the intensity of the bourbon, coating the mouth and insulating it from the sharpness of the alcohol for a warm, smooth sip.

Toasted Hazelnut – The hazelnut really resulted in an extended finish that had a matured, toasted element to it, something Ouita describes as “that fresh, Girl Scout shortbread flavor without the syrupiness.” Chris pointed out how it brought out the malted oak and vanilla, lending a nutty sweetness to the whiskey.

Orange – The acidity of the orange created a bright, sparking sensation when meeting with the whiskey, working its way to the back and sides of the mouth for a fullness. They also suggested a bit of nibbling on the pith for a bit of Grand Mariner silkiness.

Dried Cranberry – The dried cranberry was all about tartness and texture, emboldening, enlivening and elevating the richness of the bourbon.

Cocoa (about 65% cocoa) – The dusty, chocolate-y flavor of the heavy cocoa brought out some of the sweeter, spiced notes in the whiskey, and frankly, made us all think of bourbon balls, particularly the absolutely irresistible collection at Ruth Hunt Candies.

Sorghum – We used a local brand called Country Rock Sorghum. Sorghum has an earthy, grassy nature that almost brings out the sweetness of the whiskey. Like the Parmesan, it also insulates a bit of the alcohol, but has a nuttier maple-y finish when combined with the bourbon. Chris pointed out that the earthiness brings out the limestone minerality of the water often signature to Kentucky bourbon.