Over the years, I’ve entertained in my home with just about as many different types of parties as I could find in books or online, and I thought I’d pretty much run the gamut until I came across the idea of hosting a bourbon tasting while attending last month’s Bourbon Classic in Louisville, Ky., led by John Shutt of Blanton’s Bourbon.
While I’ve been to many wine tastings, I’ve never hosted one of my own; they always seemed too complicated due to the vast variety of wines available. But because of its limited production, bourbon feels a bit more approachable, and although I’m a bit of a newbie when it comes to the spirit — it’s only in the past two years that I’ve become a super-fan — Shutt’s information and enthusiasm for it had me scouring my calendar for available soiree dates.
To throw a bourbon tasting party, first you’ll want to choose which bourbons you’re going to serve and, in order to do this, you need to know your audience. Are your guests experts who really know their stuff — people you need to impress — or are they folks who are curious and looking to explore? Either way, the steps are similar, but your price points can vary greatly.
If you’re on a super-tight budget, try the potluck approach and have your friends all contribute a bottle. If you have more to spend, go with rarer selections. But regardless of cost, Shutt suggests having three different bourbons for a tasting. You can choose to do a “vertical tasting,” which compares spirits of different ages but all from the same distillery, or a “horizontal tasting,” comparing bourbons that are very similar in character but from different distilleries.
For the first bourbon in a horizontal tasting, Shutt suggests a standard or flagship bourbon, such as Jim Beam or Buffalo Trace.
Then, the middle bourbon should be a small-batch spirit, which offers more complex flavors. (Cincinnati’s own bourbon guru Molly Wellmann likes Corner Creek or Noah’s Mill.) For the final offering, choose a high quality, single-barrel spirit. These bourbons are held to the highest standards and are the finest a distiller has to offer. Either Blanton’s or Elmer T. Lee from Buffalo Trace would be excellent options.
Set your table for the tasting with a pitcher of water for diluting, small glasses (one for each bourbon — the traditional tulip or Glencairn glasses are nice to have, but not necessary), chocolates and nuts for nibbling and pens and paper for note taking. Plain crackers are great palate cleansers.
Start the evening with a bourbon cocktail. According to Shutt, “It’s just the thing to warm your palate before dealing with a strong spirit like bourbon.” At the Bourbon Classic event, we were served Old Fashioned Whiskey Sours and our palates were indeed quickly warmed, as was the ambience. Wellmann’s “Bob’s My Uncle Cocktail” is another great cocktail choice (recipe follows).
After the cocktail, start the tasting. There are several different characteristics to look for while tasting bourbon. Start with color. Younger bourbon will be lighter in color while an older spirit will have a richer hue. Then move onto the smell or “nosing.”
“Don’t skip this extremely important part,” Shutt says. “Seventy to 90 percent of taste comes from your nose.”
Open your mouth and breathe in with your nose so the aroma won’t burn. Try adding a few drops of water or letting the bourbon rest to see if this makes a difference in the aroma. Then, taste your bourbon. Put it in your mouth and “chew” it for 10 seconds without swallowing.
What’s happening on your tongue? What’s the “mouth feel?” Is it smooth? Creamy? See if you can notice all six flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the elusive umami, a Japanese term which doesn’t really translate well, but basically means a pleasant savory taste.
Finally, try to explain the finish. Did you know that you have taste buds in your esophagus? Can you feel the bourbon as it makes its way down? Bourbon’s finish is described as being short, medium or long. The sign of really good bourbon is its ability to linger.
“The longer the finish, the higher the quality,” Shutt says.
Write notes, discuss with your friends and enjoy an evening exploring the intricacies of bourbon.
Bob’s My Uncle Cocktail
Courtesy Molly Wellmann of Japp’s and Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar
1 1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. vanilla simple syrup
1 egg white
Place all ingredients in a shaker. Shake well and strain the mixture into a glass over ice. Garnish with an orange wedge and bourbon-soaked cherry. Serve immediately.