How to Properly Taste Bourbon

Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe explains how to properly sample bourbon.

Christopher Osburnby Christopher Osburn

In 1795, Jacob Beam made his first barrel of whiskey about twenty-five miles from where were the Jim Beam Distillery sits today. “Jacob’s son David moved the business a little closer to the railroad that was coming through,” says Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s Master Distiller. The arrival of the railroad in the 1800’s made Beam move the business to Bardstown, where there was a train station. The family business was there up until prohibition.

It wasn’t until two generations later that the famed Jim Beam entered the family business. “It was under his leadership when the dreaded prohibition came about in the United States and they shut the business down.”

During that time, Jim Beam tried his hand at citrus farming. “He failed terribly at that.” He tried some coal mining up in eastern Kentucky and that didn’t fare so well either. Then he came back to this property and was involved in a lime-stone rock quarry business until prohibition was repealed.

When it was repealed, there was an old distillery on the spot where Jim Beam sits today. “Jim Beam re-opened the plant and put our family back into business.” He was seventy years old and he accomplished this feat in only 120 days. “I’m always amazed to think that a guy that age was able to do that. I’m 57 years old and if I can get the grass cut at my house I’m doing good.” Noe couldn’t possible imagine re-opening a distillery. “But, I’m glad he did because lord knows what I’d be doing today if he didn’t get back into the liquor business.”

Bourbon-Bartender

His son helped him get the business back up and running. When he was looking to add a family member to the business, he had to look to his sister’s family because he had no children. “He brought my father, Booker Noe, into the business. That’s why the last name went from Beam to Noe in the sixth generation because Jim Beam’s son didn’t have any children.”

Early on Booker had only one choice because Fred was the only child he had. He did have one rule for him though. He wanted his to finish college because he didn’t finish college himself. “After eight years and a lot of his money, I finally got out of college and I’ve been working here ever since.” This month, he is celebrating thirty years working at Jim Beam.

In April, Noe announced that Jim Beam filled its thirteen millionth barrel since prohibition was repealed in 1933. Noe, himself, filled the barrel. “I guess, in this case, 13 is a lucky number,” said Noe. “As a family, we’re proud of this milestone. It speaks loudly and proudly to our longevity and history, and bolsters our position as the world’s largest producer of bourbon. We’ve been making bourbon a long time and we’ve made a lot of it.”

Fred Noe has strong opinions on how bourbon should be sampled. He believes that drinkers should be using most (if not all) of their senses when sampling bourbon.

Bourbon

How to taste Bourbon like a man (according to Fred Noe):

Color:
The first step in the bourbon sample process is the visual appearance of the bourbon itself. Noe believes that before any drinking is to occur, the imbiber must first take a look a the color of the bourbon. The length the bourbon is aged will impact the color. “If it’s been aged longer it’s going to have more color from the barrel.” It will also have more color if it’s bottled at a higher strength. “When we reduce the bourbon with mineralized water down to bottling strength, you are reducing color and flavor. You will see lighter colored bourbon typically in lower strength.”

Nose:
The next thing you want to do after looking at the color is take note of the nose or the aroma. Booker Noe had a little trick to nose the bourbon. “When you stick your nose into the glass, part your lips.” Don’t keep your lips tightly closed. “Before I did that, I never realized that it smelled differently if you keep your mouth closed.” If you do smell it both ways, you can really see that it does smell dramatically different with your mouth opened and your mouth closed. “Over the years, I think people have learned how to nose whiskies and you see this technique used almost universally.” Thirty years ago Noe was studying this technique and said, “Wow it really did make a difference, I better start listening to this old man”. Noe knows that many children don’t want to listen to their parents too much. “But, he wanted to show me something.”

Related: White Whiskey Versus Moonshine

Taste:
The third step in the process is the most fun part of the whole adventure: The tasting itself. “My dad had a unique way of tasting bourbon where he took the bourbon in his mouth and he would chew on it.” Booker would work it all through his mouth before swallowing it. “A reporter one time coined it ‘The Kentucky Chew’, the way my father tasted bourbon.” The technique consists of literally smacking your lips together in an almost chewing motion.

Finish:
The fourth step in his tasting technique is to assess the finish. “That’s the flavor the bourbon leaves behind after you swallow.” Take note of what part of you palate keeps the flavor the longest as well as when and where you feel the burn. Perhaps there’s no burn at all, only a clean, smooth finish. The finish is the only true way to figure out if the bourbon you are sampling is hand-crafted high quality bourbon or swill.

Jim Beam currently produces Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Jim Beam Maple, Jim Beam Honey, Jim Beam Red Stag (Black Cherry, Hardcore Cider and Spiced Cinnamon), Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, Jim Beam Jacob’s Ghost, Jim Beam Signature Craft (Quarter Cask and Signature twelve year Year Craft) and Single Barrel.