A Bourbon Tasting Guide: How to Look for Taste Notes

From memes to award-winning recipes, more and more people are discovering bourbon every day. Its popularity has driven distillers to pioneer craft distilleries all over the United States. It has driven the creation of farms that distill the libation … straight from the fields. 

Bourbon has even prompted cooking aids such as bourbon-infused smoker bricks and personal hygiene products like beard oil. The world is still discovering the appeal of the most sought-after spirit in the world. 

With bourbon’s continued explosion in popularity has come a greater need to understand the nuances of the different kinds on the market, as well as how to taste bourbon and its unique flavors. 

When you understand bourbon flavors and notes, you can know what to ask for and what to expect when trying new bourbon brands. You can hold your own bourbon tasting to discover new and exciting flavors with friends when you learn how to taste bourbon.

Bourbon Tasting and Evaluation

So, how do you uncover what tasting notes really mean?

You understand the evaluation process with this bourbon tasting guide.

Typically, bourbons are evaluated on five characteristics: color, aroma, mouth-feel, flavor, and finish. 

But since the most complex character is flavor, let’s dive into the five different flavor categories found in bourbons so that when someone says a bourbon is “nutty” or another is “spicy” you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about. 

Note: Bourbons are highly complex drinks and have complex flavor profiles, so you won’t see them billed as “sour” or “sweet” alone. But for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to cover these flavors as the dominant flavors of a given bourbon’s taste profile. 

How to Detect the Notes in Your Bourbon Tasting

Take this bourbon tasting guide, set up your own bourbon flight, and begin your bourbon tasting with friends. Don’t forget your Glencairn, or tulip-shaped glass, to nose the bourbon first (open-mouth sniff) and allow the aroma to be the prelude to the taste. Once on the tongue, take note of what you are tasting. 

Vanilla and caramel are typical notes most people pick up right away, thanks to the oak barrels. But once you’ve pushed it around a bit on your tongue, you’ll be able to taste the other notes, as well. 

The most important thing to notice about your bourbon tasting is not everyone will taste the same thing. Our palates are different. And when you see people writing up that a bourbon tastes like “Christmas” or “dill pickles” and you don’t know how they got there, just know they are embellishing and romanticizing the memories that come from their experiences. 

That does NOT mean that you have to taste “a baked puff pastry topped with chocolate”. 

Now, let’s jump to how to discover bourbon notes. 


Since bourbon is aged in new charred oak barrels, oak is going to be a major flavor note. But there are bourbons with notes of conifer and nuts, as well. 

Wood notes are broken down further into toasted oak and new oak (oaks), pine and cedar (conifers), and pecan, walnuts, and almonds (nuts). 

These flavors are lent, not only by the barrel but by the corn, barley, wheat, or rye that’s used in the mash bill and how they are treated before hitting the barrel. 

Examples of wood-forward profiles:


With grains being at the heart of the creation process, it’s no wonder that there are flavor profiles that lead with grain notes. 

Corn, wheat, barley, and rye all lend to all the flavor profiles of bourbon, but it’s the distillation process, the mash bill, and the location of the rick house (among other factors) that determine how prevalent (or not) grains will be in the flavor profile of the bourbon in hand. 

Examples of grain-forward profiles:


It may be difficult to fathom how mixes of wheat, barley, rye, or corn could combine to make “fruity” or “floral” flavors in bourbon, but they are the result of the esters that are formed during the fermentation process that generate notes of fruit. And the yeasts used in the fermentation process lend to the floral flavors.

Fruit notes are classified as tropical, berry, fresh, dried, and cooked and are broken down even further into individual fruits. While floral notes are typically limited to rose and potpourri. 

But the depth of their fruit or floral flavor will depend on the compounds’ ability to survive the distillation and maturation process, as well as the mash bill and barrel treatment.

Examples of fruit- and floral-forward flavor profiles:


Bourbon’s sweetness is attributed to the wood sugars in the staves of the barrels that the charring brings out, and the grains used in the mash bill. Wheated bourbons where rye is replaced with wheat in the mash recipe tend to be defined as sweeter bourbon. 

That sweetness is broken into subcategories like candy, baked goods, and buttery flavors. With each being broken down further into caramel, vanilla, maple syrup, toffee, honey, butterscotch, chocolate, and baked goods. 

It’s this sweetness that helps balance and deepen the flavor profile, beyond wood and grain. 

Examples of sweet-forward profiles:


Pushing forward in many bourbons is the spiciness that comes from the breakdown of lignin in the oak barrels. It can give your bourbon earthy spice flavors like leather, coffee, and tobacco. Or it can give off aromatic spice flavors like licorice, mint, herbal tea, clove, black pepper, and/or cinnamon. 

Examples of spice-forward profiles:

Now that you know how to discover flavor notes and its flavor notes with this bourbon tasting guide, you can hold your own bourbon tasting (flight), with friends.

See who can recognize what in each bourbon and enjoy!

Note: Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash