Bourbon Tasting 101

Bourbon Tasting 101

Having a Bourbon tasting party is a great way to gather good company & learn about Kentucky’s most treasured spirit. Well ingrained into the history of the Bluegrass state & even the Kentucky Derby, bourbon is an important part of Kentucky’s heritage. On Derby day, a whopping 7800 liters of bourbon is used by Churchill Downs to create the famed mint julep. Get Started by downloading our Bourbon Tasting Notes & Bourbon Tasting Mats.

Whether you and your party guests are avid Bourbon drinkers or novices in the whiskey world, a bourbon themed party is guaranteed fun. Bottoms up to Bourbon!

Different Types of Tastings First, to conduct a tasting, decide if it should be blind or not. Keeping the names of the different bourbons off the table during the tasting event will remove any personal bias of the tasters. An open tasting is best for tasters who want to be informed along the way as they pick their favorites. Either way, you may want to print a critic’s list of flavor notes to look for and hold that for the end to share with the group. It’s fun to compare your notes to an expert’s palate. (We’ve shared some notes with you below, to get you started.)

Secondly, choose a type of tasting. A general tasting flight will assess a hodge-podge of different bourbons with radically different flavor profiles. A horizontal tasting flight will pit bourbons of similar quality against one another but are made from different distilleries. Lastly, a vertical tasting flight will compare different bourbons from the same distillery.

The Bourbon Selection: Not sure which bourbons to choose for the different types of tastings? See below for examples of bourbons that can be used for reference. Of course, there are many different types of bourbon lining liquor store shelves so feel free to add or change up the selection found below!

Vertical Tasting Flight: Four Roses

Four Roses Yellow Label

  • 80 proof
  • Nose: Fruity, floral, gentle spice, honey.
  • Palate: Crisp, yet soft & smooth, fresh fruit, hints of pear & apple.
  • Finish: Soft & smooth.

Four Roses Small Batch

  • 90 proof
  • Nose: Spicy, rich, mellow, fruity, hints of sweet oak & caramel.
  • Palate: Creamy, mellow, ripened red berries, rich, spicy, well-balanced, moderately sweet.
  • Finish: Soft, smooth & pleasantly long.

Four Roses Single Barrel

  • 100 proof
  • Nose: Fruity, spicy, floral, cocoa, maple syrup, moderately woody.
  • Palate: Hints of ripe plum & cherries, robust, full body, mellow.
  • Finish: Smooth & delicately long.

Horizontal Tasting Flight: Sweet

Jim Beam Seven Year

  • 80 proof
  • Aroma: Delicate, with a hint of vanilla.
  • Taste: Balanced caramel and vanilla.
  • Finish: Light, but surprisingly intense.

Blanton’s Original Single Barrel

  • 93 proof
  • Nose: A spicy aroma of Dried Citrus and Orange Peels with a hint of Caramel and Vanilla.
  • Palate Entry: Full and soft, marked by a mix of Burnt Sugar, Caramel, Orange, and Cloves.
  • Finish: Muted but well balanced with Vanilla, Honey, and Citrus.

Evan Williams Honey Reserve

  • 70 proof
  • Nose: Soft, citrus honey with bourbon behind.
  • Taste: Sweet honey and allspice with vanilla and a hint of smoke.
  • Finish: Extra aged Bourbon is evident with long, slightly spicy finish.

Jefferson’s Presidential Select

  • 94 proof
  • Nose: Big vanillas with full character, citrus, apple, subtle caramel and assorted nuts.
  • Taste: Balanced and sultry, English toffee, cinnamon, leather.
  • Finish: Long and rounded.

General Tasting Flight:


  • 121 to 127 proof
  • Nose: Big oak, vanilla, smoky charcoal.
  • Taste: Intense, fruit, tannin, tobacco.
  • Finish: Clean, long, intense.

Eagle Rare 10 Year

  • 90 proof
  • Nose: Complex aromas of toffee, hints of orange peel, herbs, honey, leather and oak.
  • Taste: Bold, dry, oaky flavors with notes of candied almonds and very rich cocoa.
  • Finish: Dry and lingering.

Kentucky Tavern

  • 80 proof
  • Nose: Fiery wood-accented.
  • Taste: soft attack leads to a medium-bodied palate.
  • Finish: Slightly hot, woody finish. Straightforward.

Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve

  • 70 proof
  • Nose: Spicy cinnamon & melon notes.
  • Palate: Sweet honeyed cinnamon building in spiciness.
  • Finish: Warming and delicate.

Jim Beam Devil’s Cut

  • 90 proof
  • Nose: Oak with a hint of sweet vanilla and caramel.
  • Palate: Full bodied with intense oak and vanilla notes.
  • Finish: Long, smooth, with a hint of sweetness.

Bourbon: For each taster, pour about an ounce of each bourbon into the tasting glasses. You only need about a finger width in the glass for a good beginning taste. You can always pour more!

Tulip shaped glassware: Recommended by most tasting experts, this type of rounded glass will best showcase the bourbon flavors. Other glasses will work but they mouth of the glass should be wider than a typical shot glass.

Water Cups: Water should be provided to cleanse the pallet and to add a few drops to the bourbon glasses ‘to loosen the flavors’ after the initial tastings.

Ice Bucket: Allow the tasters to put their samples ‘on the rocks’. Drop one cube into each tasting glass after the initial round of room temperature tastings to see how the bourbon ‘opens up’ with the addition of an ice cube. Pouring bourbon over ice may dilute the bourbon too much. Experts advise the slow addition of ice to your bourbon glass rather than the other way around.

Tasting Placemats: Providing a tasting place mat will keep each taster organized. Don’t go through the trouble of making your own, download a free printable version!

Taster Notepaper: Notepaper will help the tasters keep track of their thoughts & opinions of the bourbons they try. Remind tasters to take their tasting notes home, as it may prove helpful to keep track of which bourbons they tried & enjoyed. Download a free printable version!

Hostess with the Mostess If hosting a blind tasting, pour the bourbon with the guests out of the room. No one likes a cheater! Behind the scenes, don’t forget to note which bourbon was put into which glass.

Feeling a little competitive? Once the tasting is complete, provide a list of possible bourbons that the tasters used in the tasting and have guests match those bourbons to the bourbons tasted. The guest with the most correct matches wins a prize like a top shelf bottle of bourbon. For some laughs, give the guest with the least amount of correct guesses a small gag gift like an airport-sized bottle of bourbon.

A Tasting How-To To be an exemplary taster, guests should do the following during the tasting. For easy reference, this is also listed on the our downloadable tasting placemat:

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

2. GIVE IT A SWIRL and SNIFF 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.

4. TAKE A DRINK 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.

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

6. WATER IT DOWN or THROW IT ON THE ROCKS 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.

The most important part of this hosting a bourbon tasting is to enjoy the tasting experience. Have a fun during the planning process & don’t forget to pour yourself a glass (or two)! Cheers!

Why not add a little Bourbon to your party? Not into bourbon tasting but want to throw a bourbon themed event? Shop our selection of bourbon foods, glassware and more!

  • Bourbon Tasting 101
  • Bourbon Tasting 101