How To Taste Whiskey Like A Master Distiller

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Whether you’re a whiskey novice or veteran collector, tasting new (and familiar) products is one of the best parts of the hobby. Seventh generation Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe’s favorite part of his job is tasting the whiskey at every step in production. “When you’re tasting what comes out [of the barrel] at different points while it’s aging, you get to see it come together,” he says.

When he was younger, his father Booker Noe—namesake of Booker’s bourbon and sixth generation master distiller—taught him how to taste whiskey. The experience, he says, made him think “Wow, maybe I should start listening to this old man!” To help you shape your whiskey journey, we got Fred to share his method for tasting spirits.

Photo by Clair McLafferty

1. Look at the color.

“As it gets deeper and darker in color, it gets more complex in flavor,” says Noe. Two factors can impact the color: the amount of time the distillate spends in the barrel and how much it’s diluted before bottling.

2. Get the nose.

Once you’ve assessed the color, move onto its aroma. “Dad had a trick for smelling bourbon—when you stick your nose into the glass, part your lips,” says Noe. “If you smell it both ways, you will see that it smells different if you have your mouth open or closed.” Others suggest smelling it both ways to see what differences you can pick out.

3. Taste it.

“This is the most fun part of the whole adventure,” says Noe. “My dad had a unique way of tasting bourbon. He would put the bourbon in his mouth and he would chew on it, work it all through his mouth.” After seeing him do so, a reporter coined the term “Kentucky chew” to describe the move. Spreading the whiskey around in your mouth brings it into contact with all your taste buds, giving you the chance to taste very subtle flavors.

4. Assess the finish.

The finish is “the flavor that the [whiskey] leaves behind after you swallow.” Also known negatively as an aftertaste, the finish should be enjoyable and leave you wanting another sip.