Happy Hour | Bourbon 101: Tasting Tips

By Twinkle VanWinkle, LIN Lifestyle Expert

Seeping slowly through the hills of Kentucky and branching out across the United States are the roots of a truly American creation – bourbon.

Bourbon isn’t always the first drink on everyone’s list – sometimes strong, definite higher alcohol content. Still, it’s a truly undiscovered world of flavor, layers and notably wonderful cosmos of deliciousness that was until recently more of a man’s drink.

Although I have always been a bourbon lover – I’m a VanWinkle after all – sharing my thoughts on the love of this golden-brown liquid are sometimes met with a skeptical eye for those who tend to lean more towards sweeter fair.

Consider someone who’s new to the wine world, and clings tightly to his or her White Zin or Chardonnay. Comparatively, those folks are way more flexible than converting someone over to the world of bourbon.

Bourbons, however, can be sweet, flowery and crisp. They can linger on the tongue and go down smooth. Or they can be bold. Bourbons are just as complex as their alcoholic cohorts in the wine world.

The best way to introduce your unfamiliar friends to bourbon is a tasting.

What you’ll need:

-A variety of bourbons, some better-known names and some hand-crafted small batch.

-Tulip-shaped glasses if available. These are better suited for smelling the aromas.

-Room-temperature spring water. Tap water contains chemicals that can inhibit the experience of tasting all the flavors and experiencing the aromas of bourbons.

-Unsalted crackers to cleanse your palate in-between tastes.

-A tasting card. You’ll want guests to be able to write their thoughts down, converse and share what they think. You can download my tasting card by clicking the photo below.

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Now that you’ve got your tasting all set up, how exactly do you go about tasting? Let’s see what some experts have to say:

A Tasting How-To

Via the Kentucky Derby Museum


Study the color. A darker amber is indicative of longer aging, a lighter caramel represents a shorter aging.


Swish the bourbon around to open up the aroma— called aerating. Much like wine, bourbon likes a little air to “open” the flavor. Now take a sniff with your nose over the glass. Breathe in through your mouth to receive the complexities of the flavors. What do you smell? This is your taste preview.


To get a complete flavor profile, take a sip from the glass and work it around to coat the inside of your mouth. This allows the mix to hit different parts of the tongue. Sweet tones will hit the tip of your tongue and sour notes will be picked up on the sides.


Be on the lookout for how the bourbon finishes, what flavors are left behind? Is the flavor sweet, mellow, bold or bite?


Imagine the flavor of undiluted bourbon as a closed fist. Adding in a dose of water to your mix loosens the grip. This means more intense flavors will be released than when tasting it “uncut.” Pouring bourbon over “the rocks” has the same effect but allows the bourbon to loosen more slowly so individual flavors may be noted more easily.

Bourbons tasted at my last tasting:

Happy Hour

Basil Hayden

• 80 proof

• Nose: Oak, vanilla, smoky charcoal.

• Taste: Pepper, honey, and tea.

• Finish: Clean, long, extra smooth.


• 121 to 127 proof

• Nose: Big oak, vanilla, smoky charcoal.

• Taste: Intense, fruit, tannin, tobacco.

• Finish: Clean, long, intense.

Smooth Ambler: Old Scout

• 86 proof

• Nose: Spicy, creamy with caramel notes.

• Palate: Full bodied with creamy notes.

• Finish: Long, sweet finish.

Big House Bourbon

• 86 proof

• Nose:  Sweet toffee, wood, dried fruits.

• Palate: Medium bodied with intense oak and mineral notes.

• Finish: Warming, smooth finish.

Most importantly, the main thing to remember at your bourbon tasting is to have fun! Cheers!


Twinkle VanWinkle was born in a small town in Mississippi. A life-long lover of music, media and food, she grew up following those three things along her path. She has almost 20 years of professional cooking under her apron strings, feeding thousands of friends, family and other folks while working in restaurants and bakeries in Oxford, Miss. She baked apple pies for the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and appeared on Food Network’s “The Best Of…” in the same year. Along with producing dynamic lifestyle content for LIN Media, she is a mother, musician and social media fanatic.

Follow Twinkle on Foodspotting, Tumblr and Twitter.

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