Toma(y)to, Toma(h)to… It’s Not About How You Say it, it’s What You Actually Taste…
My partner and I became Executive Bourbon Stewards through Stave & Thief Society back in March. We went through the same training, received the same sensory kit, and was awarded the coveted Stave and Thief Certification Coin upon completion and passing of the course. We are legit Executive Bourbon Stewards. However, after refining our sensory skills, and many late nights of comparing tasting notes, we realized we very rarely come up similar whiskey reviews. Likewise, when having larger discussions with the members in our society, we realized that while everyone gets the usual suspects in whiskey flavor profiles – vanilla, cinnamon, caramel, and oak, the sub-list of flavor notes wildly vary from rubber bands and leather to cotton candy, laffy taffy, and even pickle juice.
How is this possible?
What does rubber bands and leather taste like anyways? Well, it all boils down to one word: Taste. Even though we are all drinking the same whiskey, we all taste whiskey differently. Research shows that there are 5 forms of taste: bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami. Everyone has the ability to register each one of these tastes in their brain however, depending on the person, some will have a stronger sensitivity to one taste over another. My partner loves bourbons that have notes of soft vanilla, salted caramel, and baking spices. I on the other hand, have a hard time tasting vanilla. I know its there and I can somewhat smell it, but it’s truly hard for me to detect. On the flipside, I have a strong sensitivity to bananas (of all things) and as a result, the majority of my favorite bourbons all have a strong flavor profile of banana.
When sipping whiskey, your taste buds send a signal to your brain that identifies flavor. It also draws an association to that flavor such as memory or an emotion. That’s where the idea of rubber bands and leather kick in. It’s not that we’ve actually tasted a rubber band, but the smell and the texture is identified in the brain as such. Not only do I taste banana in my whiskey; but more specifically, I taste either laffy taffy banana or bananas fosters. Sometimes I pick up specific food items like churros, baked apples, or cracker jacks. Henry McKenna reminds me of the County Fair – roasted buttery sweet corn on a stick with a dash of paprika. It’s an extremely specific taste that triggers my brain to think of fond memories from my childhood. However I’ve read reviews on McKenna that range from vanilla cream, orange citrus and fennel to sweet cherry pie.
It’s fascinating; bourbon from the same barrel can taste like 5,000 different things. However, there are no wrong answers to identifying flavor notes. Everyone is different, but everyone is right. Be cautious when sifting through tasting notes and whiskey reviews. Write your own reviews and see how similar or how vastly different the reviews are. What someone hates, just might be your favorite. It just depends on the person and their palette sensitivity to certain tastes. This also means, when someone give a bourbon review, respect it for what it’s worth but also take it with a grain of salt....
Originally published in Bourbon Zeppelin on July 1, 2017.