One activity I couldn’t squeeze in during our recent trip to Louisville was going to one of the local distilleries and do a bourbon tasting. There are a few in the downtown area, but unfortunately, most of them are either not open Sunday-Tuesday or they only hold tasting during business hours, which meant I would have to go without Michael and I really didn’t want to do that. Fortunately for us, a colleague of M’s who lives in the area was with us during a late lunch on Monday afternoon at Down One Bourbon Bar and took us through a few flights. He’s an avid collector and is clearly passionate about it, so I was happy to follow his lead and follow his process.
Prior to meeting up with everyone, I made a stop at Proof on Main to collect the stamps we should have gotten the night before for our Urban Bourbon Trail passports as well as have some lunch, and it was there that I learned the first rules of bourbon tasting: get your whiskey neat (ask for some water, a straw, and a glass of rocks on the side), take two sips without adding any water or ice, and then, using a straw, pipette a few drops of water into your glass and swirl it around to open up the flavors of the whiskey. I shared this with Michael as we were there before the rest of the crew and he was hungry, and so we did just that while enjoying our bartender’s recommendations. When we picked up and went over to chat with our friends post-meal, we had no idea we would really be getting an education in bourbon appreciation.
Before you even make your first sip, you’ll want to sniff the bourbon, though you’ll want to do this while keeping your mouth open. This intensifies the experience, and you can feel the aroma tease your palate. Following that, give the bourbon a swirl and you’ll see what’s called an oil line on your glass. The higher that oil line, the longer the bourbon has been able to age. It will also seep back down the glass at a slower rate than one that’s only been aged for a few years.
When you take your first few sips, you’ll want to do what’s referred to as “chewing the bourbon” which is simply washing it over as much of your tongue as possible before swallowing. If your palate is fresh this helps wake it up, and you’ll be able to detect more of the different flavor characteristics this way. Then it’s time to pipe in some water drops, but usually only one to three at most. A bourbon nerd will likely be happy to instruct you on how much to use for that particular whiskey, but when in doubt, start with one and proceed thusly. Finally, it’s important to cleanse your palate with water between each bourbon you try, or otherwise, they’ll all blend together. (Plus, you know, it’s a good idea to drink water in general whenever imbibing.)
One of the qualifications to be placed on the Urban Bourbon Trail is that your establishment must offer at least one flight, and having gone through a tasting like this, it’s easy to see why. With the minimum requirement of having fifty bourbons on their drink menu, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the choice. If you’re not fortunate to be dining with a bourbon nerd, tell the bartender what you like and ask for a recommendation; rarely will they steer you wrong. And if you do go to Louisville, you now know the proper tasting protocol so hopefully, you won’t feel like a total tourist when you’re there.