There are almost as many different bourbon tasting techniques as there are bourbons. No one way is the right way, and everyone is going to taste things a little differently. Woodford Reserve has developed a new approach to bourbon tasting that includes certain foods and their soon-to-be patented flavor wheel. While pairing food with bourbon is nothing new, the flavor wheel is a totally new approach to food and bourbon pairings. The emphasis lies in trying a variety of foods that both compliment and contrast the flavors in the bourbon, opening your senses to a wider variety of flavors where before you only tasted bourbon.
There are three different flavor wheels so far, one for traditional Woodford Reserve, one for Double Oaked, and one for their new Rye offering. Each wheel is broken up into five sections: grain, sweet aromatics, fruit, spice, and wood. Under each of these categories are smaller subcategories, varying in both content and size based on the whiskey. The wheel for Woodford Rye, for example, is skewed heavily on the grain side. The only two grains represented there are the rye and malt because the corn is not very prominent in this offering.
The flavor wheel for the traditional Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Bourbon is equally balanced among all five categories, a reflection of the balance of Woodford Reserve. The flavor wheel for Woodford Double Oaked, which is finished in a heavily toasted but lightly charred barrel for 6 months to 1 year, is skewed heavily toward the sweet aromatics. In fact, it’s half the flavor wheel. The secondary barreling, which is done in a new barrel specially developed for this product, is designed to bring out the best of the wood sugars in the short time the bourbon is in the barrel, which brings out things like vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and honey.
I was recently invited out to Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky to learn more about the flavor wheel from Master Distiller Chris Morris. The first thing Morris pointed out is all Woodford Reserve offerings are now 90.4 proof. This was not always the case, but he decided it would be better as they branched out into multiple offerings to keep the proof consistent within the brand. This enables drinkers to more accurately pick out the variations in each offering, because proof levels have been taken out of the equation. Instead the differences in mash bill, maturity, and finishing are brought to the forefront.
Focusing on just one whiskey the first time you use the flavor wheel will be a much more enlightening experience for you. If you try to do too many different whiskeys and food pairings, your senses will easily get overwhelmed. This was my third experience with the flavor wheel, and it finally clicked for me. We focused on Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Bourbon for our flavor wheel experience. In front of us was a plate with a spoonful of Kentucky sorghum, an orange slice with peel, a toasted hazelnut, a chunk of parmigiano reggiano, dark chocolate, and some Craisins.
We started with the cheese. Morris instructed us to make a slurry in our mouths with which we would mingle some Woodford Reserve. This is the process we repeated for each food on the plate. The aged parmesan was a contrasting flavor. The fats in the cheese brought out more of the spicy notes because it calmed down some of the alcohol. After the initial burst of spice, the vanilla and caramel notes came through.
Next we tried it with a Craisin, or a sweetened dried cranberry. The fruit flavors came through in a bold way, highlighting the cherry and berry notes in the bourbon. Next was the toasted hazelnut. Morris was careful to point out here that whatever nut you use with your tasting wheel must be toasted to get the proper effect. The hazelnut brought forth the nuttiness of the malted barley, making the bourbon taste almost like a bowl full of mixed nuts.
The orange with the peel was a very interesting experience. We ate the orange flesh and then chewed the peel for the bitterness, spitting it out afterward. A veritable fruit bowl of citrus notes came through in the bourbon- everything from grapefruit to lime to blood orange. It was then Morris shared he sometimes liked to have his Old Fashioned with grapefruit peel instead of orange peel, another testament to the versatility of Woodford Reserve.
Dark chocolate came next, bringing out the coffee and spice notes first and then rounding out with the caramel and vanilla. Finally we tried the spoonful of Kentucky sorghum, a relative of sugarcane. Suddenly the herbal characteristics of Woodford Reserve were at the forefront, followed by the spice, then the vanilla and caramel, and finished with the fruit and nut notes.
Woodford Reserve has an app you can download to help you reproduce this experience at home. It was developed in hopes it would give bourbon lovers a new way to approach bourbon tastings in their homes for special occasions. Morris explained the tasting notes for all Woodford offerings are on their website, but those are his personal notes and most people are going to taste something slightly different. This flavor wheel gives you a new framework to approach your next bourbon tasting that will draw on your own sensory memories. It’s also a great way to get your friends, even the ones who think they don’t like bourbon, to try bourbon tasting in a totally new way.
The next time you want to host a bourbon tasting, try using the Woodford Reserve flavor wheel. Chances are your friends have never experienced anything like it before. And nothing is better than helping people experience bourbon in a whole new way.
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