Bourbon Aficionado: “I taste butterscotch on the nose, a little black pepper there too…oh yes, lingering tobacco on the finish.”
Bourbon Novice 1: “Oh yeah, I can definitely taste those things!!”
Bourbon Aficionado 1: “I taste butterscotch on the nose, a little black pepper there too…oh yes, lingering tobacco on the finish.”
Bourbon Aficionado 2: “You do? Huh. I taste banana on the nose; I don’t get ANY black pepper. I get more cinnamon on the finish.”
Bourbon Aficionado 1: (Makes a face). “To each his own, I guess.”
Traditional Tasting Notes: An Abundance of Adjectives
Butterscotch. Black pepper. Tobacco. Banana. Cinnamon.
If you hang around serious bourbon drinkers (or any whiskey drinker) long enough, you will start to hear the same adjectives used repeatedly. A quick Google search of “bourbon adjectives” yields no shortage of adjectives most commonly used to describe a pour; here on Bourbon and Banter, you can even utilize this cool flavor wheel. Words like these are useful: they can help novice drinkers better articulate what they are tasting, and they seemingly provide a way for a community of drinkers to have a shared experience.
However, there are some limitations, as evidenced in the scenarios above. One, as soon as someone says they taste something (or someone reads the accompanying tasting notes), the power of suggestion is strong; you could be thinking you taste cotton candy and as soon as someone says “butterscotch” then all of a sudden that’s what you taste. Two, some (hopefully few) wield their palates like machetes and cut down anyone who thinks they taste something different. Lastly, even if two people agree on what they are tasting, e.g., banana, there are different kinds of banana taste. Green banana? Brown banana? Willy Wonka Runts candy banana?
Bourbon Graphs: Turning Tasting Notes up to 11
When my best friend and I both got into bourbon (we were 2 of 3 females in our local whiskey society), we were given these lists of adjectives, and eventually found them limiting. To be fair, as a teachers of writing (both) and a poet (her), we think about words all the time. We also doodle (me, badly) and draw (her, well), and over time, we developed our own visual system of tasting notes we call “bourbon graphs.” After creating these graphs for years and teaching others how to make them, I have found they can offer a less intimidating way for brand new bourbon drinkers to describe what they are tasting, and they offer more information about a pour than adjectives alone. When I’ve led blind tastings and had tasters create graphs, the graphs are strikingly similar.
How to Graph Bourbon
Use a white bar napkin, if available, or a piece of scratch paper/graph paper. If I am tasting at a bar, I prefer to use their napkins because that anchors that night’s tasting to a specific location and time. I take cell phone photos of my napkins and save them to Evernote for posterity.
Draw an X and Y axis (see Fig. 1). The X axis is time split into segments of three: one for the first moment of a sip, one for as it moves across your tongue, and one for the back of the throat/finish. The Y axis as represents volume: the way a pour can be flat, or have spikes where it seems to flare up and then dissipate. Write the name of what you are tasting at the top.
Take a few whiffs above your glass (don’t stick your nose all the way in). Take a teensy sip to coat your palate. Take a real sip. Take another sip or two.
Think about how the pour smelled, and how it rose and fell as it crossed your tongue. Create a line on your graph to represent that movement (see Fig. 2). Don’t overthink this.
Annotate your graph (see Fig. 3). Think of this not as definitive, but evocative. What did the taste make you think of? Did the first sip make you think of Red Hots candy? Draw that. Did the finish make you think of moldy library books? Draw those. Your drawings don’t have to be good (mine certainly are not), so have fun with this. If you’d like, give your graph a name.
(optional): If you are with others who are also graphing, share your graphs. Whether or not you had similar tasting experiences, you will have a lot of fun seeing what others came up with!
Some Thoughts About Graphing
Graphing may make you feel silly, but that’s ok. Tasting bourbon is FUN. If you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong. What I’ve found is that doing tasting notes this way gives people permission to be truer to their actual experience than trying to fit their experience into prescribed adjectives. There is no way to do a graph wrong; no one’s graph is more accurate than anyone else’s.
Graphing also helps you remember what you drank six months ago with more clarity than if you had relied on adjectives alone. For those keeping track of your tastings, keeping photos of your graphs is a good way to remind yourself of not only what you liked, but why you liked it (conversely, some of my favorite graphs are for pours I hated).
If you do graph with friends, try to not look at others’ graphs until they are done. You may be surprised to find out how similar your graphs end up being.
Try it out! Use the hashtag #bourbongraph on Instagram or Twitter.