I keep an empty mini bottle of vintage I.W. Harper on my bar—not because it's worth $9.99 according to eBay, but because once in a while I like to unscrew the top and take a whiff of old leatherbound book wrapped in butterscotch. It's one of those bourbons that latches on and reminds you that nothing else will ever taste like that again.
But also because this bourbon, unlike any other I've had, broadcast its particular DNA immediately upon opening. It was an antique book you've taken off the shelf at some bookstore with creaky wooden floors, all worn leather and crackly yellowed pages and the kind of writing you wish were still in fashion, but enveloped in warm butterscotch. Never has a bourbon given up its secrets to me so easily.
I live in the beating heart of bourbon country—Louisville, Kentucky—where the only thing people in my circles do more than drink bourbon whiskey is talk about bourbon whiskey. All told I've spent days (probably weeks) of my life at distilleries and bars, tastings, and barrel picks. Nothing smells better to me than a rickhouse on a sweltering day when the very air seeps bourbon. And I've done my journalistic due diligence and taken a hands-on course in the ways of whiskey, bringing home a hundred percent on my test and a label to put on my bios: certified bourbon steward.
But when it comes time to sit down and talk about bourbon like I know what I'm talking about, I freeze. I know more than the average Joe, but around here that's like the class valedictorian trying to hang with the Ivy League. I don't know jack compared to the people I'm often sipping side by side with.
It didn't help my intimidation when I saw a Facebook post from Chuck Cowdery, a bourbon author and expert (and friend I picked up on a bourbon media trip).
“Pro tip,” it read. “Never describe a whiskey as 'smooth.' 'Smooth' is what you say about a whiskey when you don't have anything to say.”
Leaving aside that this is the kind of bourbon elitism that can turn people off our little world, I wanted to know what a person should say if they find a whiskey easy-drinking, mellow, and generally pleasing as it slides down our gullets to warm our bellies.
So I asked. I went to Cowdery. And I also pressed Old Forester's master taster Jackie Zykan—who literally describes whiskey for a living—into instructing me how to use our words to talk about bourbon.
First, let's get to the smooth comment.
“The reason I call out the smooth thing,” Cowdery said, “is anybody who knows anything about whiskey will think you're a moron if you say that. So, if you don't want people to think you're a moron…”
“I think it amounts to they've heard other people say it and they don't know what to say,” he went on. “When most people say smooth, what they're really saying is 'oh I like this.' You'd be better off saying, 'oh I like it.'”
The problem with “smooth,” Chuck explained, is “it doesn't tell me anything. … It's almost like 'oh I was expecting this to choke me and it didn't, therefore it's smooth.' Maybe that's useful, but I think the better way to go is try to be descriptive.”
And that's where we can get stuck. When anything is fair game for an analogy, where does a person even start?
Enter Zykan. Ten years behind a bar, a background in biology and chemistry, and her talent for finding a story in a glass of whiskey brought her to her starring role with Old Forester. The first thing you should know is she wishes there was no such thing as tasting notes.
“I swear, I wish we didn’t write them, I wish we didn’t provide them,” she said. “They're such a tiny part of the whole picture.” And once you have that seed planted, she explained, you'll never get past it to form your own ideas. Bottle says cherry or cardamom? It's over. That's what you’ll taste.
But how does she get to that point? How does she isolate grilled tangerine, in the case of their newest offering, President's Choice? (FYI: that's named for its backstory—it comes from barrels picked by the company president and was only available to important company presidents back in the day—not for, well, you know.) I sampled this limited release—that sold out about five minutes after the doors opened at the shop in their new urban distillery in downtown Louisville—and there were no grilled tangerines in my glass. Just a really excellent version of the Old Fo that I keep on the bar at home.
First of all she's not the know-it-all in your bourbon club (“there's always that person,” she said. “I wonder 'are you just naming nouns at this point?'”). And second of all, I shouldn't beat myself up. “It's not a contest of who can find the most flavor notes,” Zykan said. “Some days I can find one and some days I can find a hundred.”
But. “If there's going to be an outlier note that will set it apart, something unorthodox, here's your totem tasting note for this product and it will be there immediately,” she said. If you're still stuck on smooth, she has some tips.
Break it down
Flavors are probably going to come through in one of a handful of categories. These are the ones she looks for. Think of them while you're tasting and that may help spark a recognition:
- Sweet aromatics like vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, molasses, honey, chocolate.
- Green notes of anything grassy or herbaceous
- Spices like pepper, or baking spice (think nutmeg or clove)
- Fruit is always there, but be specific, she said. Dark fruit, apples; if it's lemon is it lemon peel, is it Meyer lemon?
- Floral could be a deeper hued bloom, like a rose or a white flower
- And bonus, “perceived heat is a really good one,” she said; how hot, or high proof does it taste?
Learn the legacy
Distillers want nothing if not consistency. To a pro like Zykan, every major distiller has its own unique calling card. Take Four Roses. “They're super heavy on dill, on toasted oak,” she said. “Once you have that registered in your mind it helps you… have that baseline and compare it to something new.” Learn all the biggies—Maker's, Beam, Turkey et. al, and “once you get that down for all your flagships it's easier to bounce back and forth,” she said.
Then when you get together with a group for a tasting, “find something everybody has had, make it Maker's Mark or Old Forester, whatever, brand doesn't matter, as your benchmark and then introduce something new on top of it. Conversation about how those two are different helps to identify the layers instead of sitting down with just one glass. Comparing them is hugely helpful.”
Skip the perfume
Seriously. “You cannot wear perfume and taste bourbon, I'm sorry, you have to start neutral,” she said. “I was the biggest product junkie of all time but it all has to be scentless.” That includes lip balm, lotion, hairspray, all of it.
“To taste in silence is ideal because the second somebody plants that seed in your head you're ruined,” she said. When Jackie's leading a tasting people expect her to tell them what's in the glass. Surprise! “I tell people it's going to be awkward but I'm going to be quiet because I want you to find it. Silence is golden, it's so important.”
It turns out there's a reason you taste vanilla or grilled tangerine or whatever when you try bourbon: science. And that was my personal bourbon aha moment.
“Here's a bucket of distillate,” she said. “Add a vanilla bean to a bucket of water and it's going to smell like a bucket of vanilla scented water. Because it's vanillin, whether you get it from a vanilla bean or synthesized in Glade candle, or from the breakdown of sugars in the barrel as you char it. Whether it comes from a bean or a barrel it's the same compound. It's going to trigger the same response in the same receptor. Your brain says, 'I recognize this because last time I put a vanilla bean in my mouth it felt like that.'” Even though bourbon starts as water, grain, yeast, and an oak barrel (and nothing artificial is added), “everything you're perceiving in that glass is one hundred percent a chemical.”
Yeah. You may have dropped or flunked every science class you ever took (like I did), but deep in our brains we recognize these chemicals. “It's all there,” Jackie said. “It's just a chemical that bonds to a receptor that triggers your mind: 'oh, we remember this one.'”
Here's another one. Say you get notes of movie theater popcorn butter when you try a bourbon. That's diacetyl. It comes from the corn.
That old book I was getting from the I.W. Harper? Book = paper = wood = sugar that's gone stale, Zykan said. (When she gets that note she calls it the inside of a dresser drawer in an antique mall.)
It's just whiskey
Sure, at the end of the day, it's great to be able to rattle off some obscure tasting note that you've discovered in a bourbon. But “it doesn't always happen,” Zykan said.
“I think we have this idea that we're supposed to have the answer,” she said. Consider this. “Someone pays me to do this and it takes me a full day in silence and many breaks eating a whole lot of carbs to get through writing exact tasting notes. And in all honesty, I get through and when it hits the bottle I taste it and I say, 'well, I was wrong.'”
“There's nothing to be intimated about—ever ever ever,” she said. “Can we all get back to what makes it so awesome in the first place? Just being able to talk through it, taste through it. Whether you taste something specific or not, guess what? You still won because you just drank a glass of whiskey.”