When Tasting Notes Get Ridiculous

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November 12, 2012 by Bourbon Empire

Bored with bourbon tasting notes that regurgitate common descriptions like honey, vanilla, leather, clove, cinnamon, dried fruit, etc.? So were our culinary ancestors, who instead described their wine and spirits the way they described people. Their tasting notes sounded less like shopping lists for the spice cabinet and more like resumes for war heroes. Bourbon wasn’t described as a shriveled fig wrapped up in tobacco, instead it was robust and courageous, with assertive ambition.

Actually, tasting notes that reference other flavors are probably far more useful, but whenever I read them I always think back to a paper I found in some archives a few years ago that described how tasting notes historically centered around adjectives you’d normally use to describe someone’s character (words like timid or brave) instead of nouns with flavor associations. This makes sense, since people historically didn’t have access to as many different ingredients they could use as references.

The modern method is far easier to use because it relies on relatively unambiguous, well-understood touchstones. The flavors mentioned above actually do a pretty good job of describing lots of American whiskies. The old method is almost as pointless as trying to describe how a color looks, but is admittedly much more fun. This is why I advocate bringing back the old method, and even kicking it up a notch. Our favorite bourbons and other whiskies deserve better than sounding like the ingredient list for a bag of trail mix. Descriptions of drinks like Fighting Cock 103-proof bourbon from Heaven Hill will go from “caramel notes and hot spice,” to “a rowdy young man, waking up on Sunday morning missing a front tooth and holding a broken pool stick in his hand, wondering how he got home last night and why there’s a stolen police cruiser in his garage.”

Besides, while researching my book I’ve had a number of professional tasters and spirits industry professionals reiterate the point that tasting notes are pretty subjective anyway. So come join me, and help add a little extra spirit to online tasting forums.

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