Bourbon 101: How to Properly Taste Bourbon | The Kentucky Chew

how to properly taste bourbon the kentucky chew

Did you know that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to taste bourbon? Yes, it’s true. Throwing back a shot won’t do anything for you. If your main goal is to get as drunk as you can, by all means, go ahead and keep doing what you are doing. Taking a shot of bourbon in one gulp (by the way, I hate that word), won’t allow you to taste any flavors, such as; vanilla, caramel, maple syrup, toffee, etc. By tasting the bourbon the correct way, you won’t have the burn and you’ll learn to train your palate to identify distinct flavors.

Depending on the distillery you go to and the tour guide you get, you may or may not get instructed on how to properly taste bourbon during the tasting portion of the tour. Some may go into more details, while others may briefly touch on the subject. Like for example, when I went to Woodford Reserve, they mentioned it briefly, and when I went to Jim Beam, they talked about the “Kentucky Chew” and the “Kentucky Hug.” When I visited Maker’s Mark, the tour guide gave in-depth, detailed, step-by-step instructions on what to do. So, as you can see, it definitely can vary.

I know some people reading this, may be curious about bourbon or may have plans of visiting a distillery or may be unaware there is a right or wrong way, but I’m going to go into detail about what to do, so in case you find yourself in a distillery, you won’t be looking around the room clueless.

Let it be known that there is a difference between drinking bourbon and tasting bourbon. Drinking bourbon is how you prefer to drink it, whether it is on the rocks, neat, or in a mixed drink. Tasting bourbon is paying attention to the nuances and aromas without a mixer or anything to dull the flavors.

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Before you taste the bourbon, it is essential that you have the proper glass. 

There are several different glasses that you can use for your tasting. For example, you can use a Glencairn glass or a high-ball glass or a similar glass. The small base of the Glencairn glass allows you to get a good look at the appearance. Because of the design of the glass, it is easy to swirl the bourbon around, and the narrow neck allows the smell to gather under the edge and the smell of alcohol to vanish.

What to be aware of during your tasting…

Now, that you have the correct glass, there are some important things you need to think about when doing the tasting.

  • Appearance
  • Aroma
  • Taste
  • Finish

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Appearance: Notice the color of the bourbon. Is it clear? Is it dark? Remember the older the bourbon, the darker it will be. Other factors that will affect the appearance/color are proof and where the bourbon aged in the rickhouse.

Aroma: This is a super important part of the tasting. Our sense of smell is stronger than our sense of taste. In fact, in a study published in the Journal Science by Rockefeller University in 2014, discovered that people can detect at least one trillion scents (In 1927, it was believed that we could only detect about 10,000 scents).

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Taste: Start by taking a small sip and swirling it around your mouth, but make sure you leave your lips slightly parted. You’ll want to do the “Kentucky Chew” when tasting bourbon. What is the Kentucky Chew, you ask? Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how!

Finish: When you hear the word, finish, it is referring to the sensations you get after you have swallowed the bourbon. Does it stay with you? It if lingers, that is considered a long finish? If is disappears quickly, then that is considered a short finish. What flavors did you notice? Were there any other flavors that you tasted?

How to properly taste bourbon or as we refer to in Kentucky, “The Kentucky Chew:”

Now, that you know what to look for and what the terms mean, we can discuss the proper steps for tasting bourbon. The late Booker Noe (Master Distiller of Jim Beam) originated “The Kentucky Chew.” To see Fred Noe (7th Generation Master Distiller) discuss it briefly and demonstrate it in action, you can watch this short video: here (It’s less than two minutes).

  • Step One: Observe the color. Generally, if the color is lighter, then it will be lighter in taste.
  • Step Two: Set your nose over over and just barely in the glass. Breathe in with your lips slightly parted. Be sure to stick your nose deep in the glass. Do NOT breathe in with your mouth closed, because this won’t allow you to appreciate all the aromas. If your mouth is closed, then the only thing you’ll get is pretty much the aroma of alcohol.
  • Step Three: Aim the bourbon to the middle of your palate. Be sure not to swallow it yet! Slowly swirl it around your mouth and begin chewing on the bourbon. Chewing it allows your palate to experience the bourbon itself. After you have done this, you can swallow. Once you swallow, smack your lips a few times. This will allow you to appreciate the finish.
  • Step Four: Note the finish, and notice what flavor is left behind and whether it is a long or short finish.

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Here’s an example of Woodford Reserve’s Flavor wheel. It is there to assist you with categorizing the different characteristics of whatever bourbon you are trying, as well as where those flavors may have come from. It should be noted that each distillery may have a slightly different flavor wheel.

Now, you know how to properly taste bourbon like a true Kentuckian.

Cheers!