This post comes to us from bourbon podcaster/blogger John Edwards of Dads Drinking Bourbon.
Okay, you’re here so we know you’re into boots. We also know that you also try on different pairs of boots until you find some that fit right. As there are different types of boots out there, there’s also different types of whiskey. Just like you try on boots until you find the ones that fit just the way you want them to, you should try different whiskeys as well. I mean yes, the easy choice for a winner is to get yourself a pair of Alvies, but you probably tried on a lot of different boots before you got there.
Going to a boot store though can be a little daunting. First off, what type of toe do you even go for? Are you looking for an A, J, R or S toe? How about a square toe? Or a round toe? Or a snip toe? Just the toe alone is a big decision! Once you get through with that, you then have the big question of what material you want. And finally, after you’ve made so many decisions you think you can’t take anymore, you have to look at patterns!
The same can be said about whiskey. You walk into a liquor store and there’s Bourbon, American Whiskey, Japanese Whiskey, Scotch, Irish Whiskey, etc. etc. etc. Have no fear though! Just like you can try on a pair of boots, we’re going to teach you how to try on your whiskey so it fits just right. Let’s break it down and help point you in the right direction of what you might like.
If there is one piece of advice you should take away from this blog post, it's this: taste blind. That doesn’t mean you have to put a blindfold on or close your eyes, but have someone else pour three 1oz glasses for you and make sure you don’t know what’s in them. You can certainly do more than three, but you don’t want to overload your palate. Do this multiple times with multiple configurations until you find what you really like. Blind tasting will help take away any bias you might have on brand names, types of whiskey, etc. and will let you focus on which one you like the best purely on taste.
Make sure you vary the whiskey up in your blind. There are four big ways you can do this:
Proof: the proof is equal to double the alcohol by volume. Therefore when you see something that’s 100 proof, it’s 50% ABV. It’s called proof because 100 proof is the point at which alcohol becomes flammable. They used this method back in the day before alcohol was highly regulated as one of the ways to determine whiskey’s quality. The proof can also help classify a product. For example, one of the regulations regarding bourbon is that it must be at least 80 proof, but no greater than 160 proof.
Age: Yes, it goes without saying that whiskey is going to taste different based on how long it has been in the barrel. Older whiskey usually has more oak notes than younger whiskey because it was in the barrel longer.
Mashbill: Mashbill is the recipe of the different grains that makes up the whiskey. All bourbon must be at least 51% corn, so you may see different mashbills such as 72% corn, 14% rye, and 14% malted barley. On the other side, many rye whiskeys have a 95% rye and 5% barley mashbill. That rye is what makes the front of your mouth tingle like Pop Rocks. Try to find variance in your mashbills such as a bourbon with a high rye percentage and one with a low rye percentage, until you find the one you like the best.
Price: not all great whiskey needs to cost you a car payment. Find some that are in different price ranges. When you hone down what proof, age, and mashbill you like the best, you can find ones in that category in different price ranges so you’re not always breaking the bank to get a good drink.
As you taste through, write down your thoughts. Many people don’t do this because they think they aren’t trained or sophisticated enough to make tasting notes. You don’t need to be a master taster in order to write down notes. Honestly, just write down what you think of when you drink it. I once thought a whiskey reminded me of pepperoni pizza! It had a high malted barley content and just took me back to pizza and beer in college.
Once you’ve got your notes sorted, figure out which whiskey you liked the best and rank the others. Here’s the fun part: the reveal. The person that poured you your drinks can now tell you what was in each glass. Look at the one you liked the most. What does the bottle tell you about it? You may have to do some research to determine items such as the mashbill and age, but the proof will be on it.
There are some times where age won’t be on the bottle though. Those non-age-stated bottles (NAS) can be for a variety of reasons. However, there are some clues that can help you determine the age if one isn’t readily available. It’s a little easier if a whiskey is labeled straight. In order to be designated as a straight whiskey, the whiskey must be at least 2 years old. If a straight whiskey is less than four years old, it must have the age on the bottle. If the product is a blend, it must have the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend. Therefore, you may see some products that say “aged at least two years”. That means that some might be two, some might be older. If a straight whiskey is over four years old, it does not need an age statement. Good news though, you know it’s at least 4 years!
After you’ve done your research, find some other whiskey that's similar to your favorite, then try to find some slight differences. Maybe the mashbill is a little different or you found a younger/older similar offering. Then go ahead and blind taste again with your favorite from the first round and the others you added. Did the one you liked originally still hold up?
Either way, you’re going to hone your palate and find out what you really like. It’s always fun to come back and do blind tastings to check and see as your palate changes. Plus, it saves you from ordering something while you’re out that might not be your favorite. Speaking of ordering, since you’ve spent all that time trying on your whiskey, you might as well save time on your boots and get a new pair of Alvies. And since you’re in a whiskey mood, maybe get yourself those Whiskey River Lamars. That’s what I did! Cheers y’all.
John Edwards is the co-founding-father of Dads Drinking Bourbon. His love of bourbon began when he moved to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky. After graduation, he covered the Cats and horse racing for sports radio before his eventual career in IT. In 2016, he co-founded the Dads Drinking Bourbon podcast and blog, where he and co-founder Zeke focus on whiskey tastings and interviews with people in the whiskey industry. When not drinking bourbon, he can most likely be found chasing around his daughter while she tells him what to do. Check out Dads Drinking Bourbon.