This year marks the 10th anniversary of Congress declaring that September is National Bourbon Heritage Month. During that time, Liquor Barn has been on the forefront of innovations and celebrations. At the helm is Brad Williams, Director of Spirits and Resident Bourbon Expert. To celebrate National Bourbon Heritage month, Brad took us deep into the fascinating world of single barrel selection. Now it’s your turn to join us.
BEHIND-THE-SCENES AT THE DISTILLERY
Typically, if Brad’s selecting two barrels, five to six barrels are set out. Sometimes the tasting area is in a
rickhouse , like at Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey. Other times the distillery has a designated tasting area or room, like at Maker’s Mark or Four Roses. “The first thing I do is inspect the barrels,” Brad explains. He looks for warped lids, cracks in the barrel staves and compares the color of each barrel. If the lids are really warped, that means there’s a lot of action inside the barrel. Cracks in the staves mean that oxygen is getting into the barrel and air and evaporated liquid is getting out. If a barrel is a lighter than usual weight it means that there’s been a lot of evaporation. This causes a higher concentration of whiskey liquid and higher alcohol. Brad also takes note of how old the liquid is in each barrel (this comes in handy later on).
TASTING BOURBON BEGINS WITH YOUR EYES
“Sometimes, the samples are already drawn from the barrel and in tasting glasses when I arrive,” Brad notes. “Other times, we draw the whiskey from the barrel with a whiskey thief, which is a copper tube used to draw out the bourbon and pour it into your glass.” At this point, Brad gives each glass a good look to see if any samples are darker or lighter than the others. “Typically, a darker sample has more pronounced flavors. A darker sample isn’t necessarily the best, but they are usually very unique.”
THE NOSE KNOWS
After evaluating appearance, Brad begins to nose the samples. Sometimes a distillery will provide a specific set of samples, where all the aromas are very similar. Other times, certain bourbons stand out for having better or more unique aromas. “I typically begin arranging the samples like a horse race, the best aromas are forward with the lesser aromas towards the back. This is the just the beginning of the process of picking which one is best,” Brad explains.
FINALLY! TIME TO TASTE!
Brad says he always picks up the first sample and gives it a quick taste without evaluating it. He calls it a warm up. “I just want my mouth to get acclimated to the first sip of alcohol of the day. The pure alcohol itself is always more prominent in the first couple of sips.” With the second sample, Brad will give it a soft, but deliberate whiff, trying to locate the specific aroma. Next, he takes a small sip. Then he will sniff again. Brad explains that change of aroma after a sip or two is amazing, and that more noticeable aromas get stronger the second time through. Then he will sip once more. During this second sip, Brad is trying to notice how the whiskey enters his mouth. Is it soft, dry, sweet, or spicy; balanced or complex? He’s also tasting for specific flavors and what’s prominent in the mouth. Caramel, vanilla, oak, cinnamon, baking spices, dark or light fruit? Lots of these flavors appear mid-palate.
NOT FINISHED YET
Once he’s been through the nosing and tasting stage, Brad will try to determine how the bourbon finishes. Is the finish short and sweet, or short and spicy? Is it full of oak? Or, does it linger a bit? Is the build slow? What flavors are in the finish? Oak, spice, tobacco? There are lots of ways a whiskey can finish. Brad likes a finish that “hangs around” and lingers. He drinks a large amount of water throughout the process to keep himself hydrated and his palate clean between samples.
AND THE WINNER IS…
“Sometimes the one that smells the best may be the third best in flavor, and the
second best finish. So, you have to decide which bourbon is the best combination of all the elements. This is the hard part,” Brad admits. Luckily, there are distillery employees at the sampling, or attendees who will generously offer opinions. “This is a lot of fun as sometimes the things they say result in samples being re-evaluated, several times, so that there’s informed discussion on the merits for and against it.”
NO ONE’S ABOVE THE BOURBON LAWS
One final note: Even if you discover your favorite bourbon, please note that, due to federal regulations, the average consumer is unable to purchase a whole barrel of bourbon from a distillery. If you are interested in procuring a barrel for yourself, drop us a line here.