Triple Header Bourbon Nosing:
Invite Your Friends for a Three-Way

Aroma Academy believes the aromatics of fine spirits and wine are best understood by learning individual aromas. There are a lot of different ways to do this, but this is one of our favorites. It immediately ties specific aromas with specific brands, and helps you identify the broad differences between those brands very quickly and with a minimum of frustration.

Below are the specifics of a half-hour nosing session, right down to the brands you’re sampling and the aromas you’ll learn. It gives you a framework that applies to any set of Bourbons and aromas you want to learn about. If you want to put together a nosing of collectible exotics, this will help you understand why they’re special. If you want to slap together a sniffing of what you already have on your shelves, go for it. You’ll be surprised how quickly your understanding of fine whiskey expands.

So, off you go. Let us know how well it worked for you.

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  1. Pick three Bourbons you want to understand better. For the sake of this example, we’re going to choose Knob Creek 9 year-old straight Bourbon whiskey, Blanton’s Single Barrel, and Michter’s Small Batch.
  2. Find three or four reviews of each Bourbon and see what the consensus aromas are. Everyone smells things differently, and you want a list of the aromas most commonly detected. Here’s what 10 minutes of web surfing got us:
Knob Creek Blanton’s Michter’s
Corn, nuts, toffee, honey, peaches, grain, vanilla, walnuts, tannin, vanilla, corn, oak, maple, cherry Spice, caramel, citrus, wood, butterscotch, spice, cinnamon, rye, tannins, citrus, spice, vanilla Butterscotch, banana, apple pie, brown sugar, oak, bananas, oak, caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, toffee, overripe bananas
  1. Now you need to choose the aromas you’re going to focus on. The object is to choose a set that differentiates the three Bourbons. In this case, we’re going to ignore vanilla and oak in favor of aromas that are less common. Each of these Bourbons has at least one element that is both commonly detected by reviewers and not present in the other Bourbons. Knob Creek has grains and nuts; Blanton’s has spice; Michter’s has bananas. Each has a distinct candy element: maple, caramel, butterscotch. We’ve chosen aromas from the Bourbon kit that reflect these differences.
Knob Creek Blanton’s Michter’s
 Corn, wheat, nut, maple syrup Brown spice, rye, caramel Lactone (banana), butterscotch, apple
  1.  Choose one of the Bourbons. In general, you should go from low proof to high, but it really doesn’t matter that much. We’re starting with Knob Creek.
  2. First, we’re smelling the subtler aromas – in this case, the grains: corn and wheat. Dip a clean aroma strip into each essence, and fan them around so the alcohol evaporates. What’s left on the strips are pure aroma molecules. Gently sniff each of the strips, familiarizing yourself with them. Go back and forth between them to note the difference. For me, the corn has a fresh element the wheat lacks, and the wheat is dusty in a way the corn is not.
  3. Go to the Knob Creek and give it a whiff. Remember, short, gentle sniffs like a dog on a scent. Anything in the nose that reminds you of the corn and wheat aromas you just smelled? Go back to the strips, then back to the Bourbon. Grains are a tough find so don’t be discouraged. Only give it about a minute before you move on to the nut aroma. Do the same thing with that. Then maple syrup.
  4. Combine the aroma strips. Put maple syrup and nuts together and see how combining the aromas changes your perception of them. Look for the combinations in the Bourbon
  5. Do the same thing for the other Bourbons and the aromas you’ve chosen for them. Familiarize yourself with what makes each distinct.
  6. Start to compare the Bourbons to each other. In general, with these three whiskies, one is going to be grainy, one is going to be spicy, and one is going to be fruity. These important differences should be obvious, even if you’ve struggled a little with the individual aromas.
  7. Sip the Bourbons to note how what you’ve learned about their nose carries over to how they taste.

This is about a 20-30 minute session, which is all your nose can handle. By the end of this little workout, you’ll have made yourself familiar with three distinct whiskey aroma profiles. This is a big deal. Congratulations.

As you can see, what you get out of this process depends on the whiskies you choose and the aromas you highlight. You can design your own session to be as serious or social as you like, comparing, for example:

  • The same whiskey at different ages
  • Different mash bills, with one heavy on corn, one rye, and one wheated.
  • Similar offerings from different distilleries.
  • Whiskies contributed by the participants in the nosing

To purchase a Bourbon aroma set of your own, or for more information, click here.