Methodical Bourbon Sniffing
(We do guided comparative sniffings for our in-person training to help people identify and memorize individual aromas in complex whiskey. Since we're not doing in-person training right now, people have asked if we could publish a sample sniffing so they can build their own training using our standard Bourbon kit, which you can find here. Here's one with three of our favorite Bourbons.)
Pick three Bourbons you want to understand better. For the sake of this example, we’re going to choose Knob Creek 9 year-old straight Bourbon whiskey, Blanton’s Single Barrel, and Michter’s Small Batch.
Find three or four reviews of each Bourbon and see what the consensus aromas are. Everyone smells things differently, and you want a list of the aromas most commonly detected.
Here’s what 10 minutes of web surfing got us:
Corn, nuts, toffee, honey, peaches, grain, vanilla, walnuts, tannin, vanilla, corn, oak, maple, cherry
Spice, caramel, citrus, wood, butterscotch, spice, cinnamon, rye, tannins, citrus, spice, vanilla
Butterscotch, banana, apple pie, brown sugar, oak, green apple, oak, caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, toffee, apple tart
Choose the aromas you’re going to work on. The object is to choose a set that differentiates the three Bourbons. In this case, we’re going to ignore vanilla and oak in favor of aromas that are less common.
Each of these Bourbons has at least one element that is both commonly detected by reviewers and not present in the other Bourbons. Knob Creek has grains and nuts; Blanton’s has spice; Michter’s has apples. Each has a distinct candy element: maple, caramel, butterscotch. We’ve chosen aromas from the Bourbon kit that reflect these differences: apple, brown spice, nuts, pecans, rye, wheat, corn.
Choose one of the Bourbons to focus on first. In general, you should go from low proof to high, but it really doesn’t matter that much because you’re sniffing more than tasting.
We’re starting with Knob Creek.
Choose an aroma to highlight. First, the subtler aromas – in this case, the grains: corn, rye, and wheat.
Dip a clean aroma strip into each of the essences. One essence per strip. Fan the strips gently for 20 seconds so the alcohol evaporates. What’s left on the strips are pure aroma molecules.
Gently sniff the strips, familiarizing yourself with the aromas. Go back and forth between them to note the difference. For me, the corn has a fresh element the wheat lacks, and the wheat is dusty in a way the corn is not. Rye is very subtle and, for some people, almost impossible to smell.
Go to the Knob Creek and give it a whiff. Remember, short, gentle sniffs like a dog on a scent. Anything in the nose that reminds you of the grain aromas you just smelled? Go back to the strips, then back to the Bourbon. Grains are a tough find so don’t be discouraged. (It takes time to sensitize your nose. Don't expect it to happen in a single session.) Only give it about a minute before you move on to the nut aroma. Do the same thing with that.
Combine the aroma strips. Put aromas together and see how that changes your perception of them. Look for the combinations in the Bourbon.
Do the same thing for the other Bourbons and the aromas you’ve chosen for them. Familiarize yourself with what makes each distinct.
Compare the Bourbons to each other. In general, with these three whiskies, one is going to be grainy, one is going to be spicy, and one is going to be fruity. These important differences should be obvious, even if you’ve struggled a little with the individual aromas.
Sip the Bourbons to note how what you’ve learned about their nose carries over to how they taste. What we perceive as flavor is about 90% aroma.
Your nose can handle about 20 minutes of disciplined sniffing before you need to take a break. To refresh your olfactory epithelium (the postage stamp-size membrane that contains nerves sensitive to smells) sniff your arm above the wrist. That re-orients your sense of smell to your own aromas, which you aren’t aware of because they’re in the background all the time. Give it a few minutes and then back to the Bourbon.
By the end of this little workout, you’ll have made yourself familiar with three distinct whiskey aroma profiles. This is a big deal. Congratulations. Design some other sniffing featuring different aromas and different Bourbons.
As you can see, what you get out of this process depends on the whiskies you choose and the aromas you highlight. You can design your own session to be as serious or social as you like, comparing, for example:
- The same whiskey at different ages
- Different mash bills, with one heavy on corn, one rye, and one wheated.
- Similar offerings from different distilleries.
- Whiskies contributed by the participants in the nosing