Getting More out of Reviews and Tasting Notes

Alex Kitchens

I’m no whiskey expert, but I’m a pretty avid whiskey enthusiast (enthused enough to have my own whiskey blog, right?).

Whiskey Reviews have done me wrong a time or two.

My most recent wronging was with Barrell Bourbon Batch #18, where my expectations didn’t meet reality. I’m a big fan of Barrell, and hearing rave reviews about a new batch meant that I had to find it. Every review I read about this batch touted big tropical notes:

Lots of ripe mango and coconut . . .

It resembles a tiki cocktail in bourbon form.

I’ll admit that I was extremely excited to try this whiskey, and I threw away all of my past bourbon experiences of balancing rave vs. reality, and I expected, unrealistically, that this whiskey was going to be a tropical explosion.

I tasted it, and what I tasted was: Barrell. This was another great batch from Barrell, but it tasted like many of their previous others. It ended up taking me a while (and some blind pairings) to get past that gap in expectation vs. reality and realize that, while it wasn’t what I expected, it was my favorite Barrell Bourbon batch.

The Expert-Amateur Tasting Gap

Here’s the problem: for the most part, either tasting notes are written by experts (read that as “people who have more refined palates than me” ) or by, in the very least, people who fluff up their notes to seem like experts.

I, on the other hand, am not a tasting expert. While I am an avid whiskey enthusiast, I have only been embracing my obsession for the past couple of years. I still struggle with some more basic notes, thinking “Is this caramel or more vanilla” and “What exactly is meant by ‘Leather’?”

So, while the reviewers may be able to pull out more refined notes in a whiskey and get excited by that, I am left only being able to taste the more broad flavors.

This leaves me with a gap and lack of appreciation for certain tasting notes like “Magnolia Blossom”, and I had come to terms with this.

But recently, I have found a way to better appreciate these tasting notes using the Bourbon Tasting Wheel.

Bourbon Tasting Wheel by the American Bourbon Association
"Bourbon Tasting Wheel" from of the American Bourbon Association

The Bourbon Tasting Wheel

I have known about the Bourbon Tasting Wheel for some time, and I have tried using it in tastings to better define certain flavors I’m experiencing.

If you are not familiar with the wheel, it is broken into note categories. These are the pieces of the innermost circle of the wheel. The categories are broken into sub-categories: These follow along the same piece of the wheel as their category, and they are more descriptive. An example of a category is “Spice”. An example sub-category of “Spice” is “Earthy”, and a sub-category of that is “Coffee”.

I have typically used the wheel by going down it, or finding a broad note like “Sweet” and trying to get more specific with the note like “Candy” or “Honey”.

Moving Down The Bourbon Tasting Wheel
Move down the wheel to distinguish notes

The tricky thing about going down the wheel is that I did not find it to be immediately helpful. It seems to be one of those things that over time you absorb, taking time, concentration, and dedication. By often referencing it, I have been able to better categorize notes, allowing me to get more specific over time.

Recently, I realized how to use the Bourbon Tasting Wheel effectively in another way: going up the tasting wheel.

Moving Up The Bourbon Tasting Wheel
Move up the wheel to find common ground with another taster's notes

To go up the wheel, I can take the tasting notes presented by experts, which usually reside on the outer sections of the wheel, and I can translate them up a level or two on the tasting wheel to notes that I am familiar with.

For instance, I can take take the tasting notes like “Ripe Mango”, and translate it up a level or two to a note that I may be able to better pick up like “Tropical” or “Fruity”, where I may have a more relatable experience.

Batch #18’s Notes, Redefined

The Barrell Bourbon Siblings
Batch #18, with oh-so-beautiful Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon photobombing in the back.

Here are the original tasting notes of Barrell Batch #18:

Nose: Opens rich and fruity, on orange liqueur and maraschino syrup, with underpinnings of cardamom, juniper, and incense. With air, a note of sweet vermouth arrives then evolves into concord grape jam and mint shisha. Slowly, exotic notes of papaya, finger lime, and gooseberry lift above the milieu.

Palate: The flavor of wildflower honey joins the orange liqueur and sweet vermouth from the nose but these sweet flavors are balanced by tangy pomegranate and strawberry. Subtle notes of dark chocolate and kahlua lend it depth.

Finish: Unexpectedly earthy, with cardamom re-appearing alongside almond, cappuccino, and sumac. - Barrel Bourbon, Batch #18 Flavor Notes

That’s pretty poetic. And also, Holy Shit, that’s a lot of very specific notes to be familiar with. Some of notes I have never heard of before, like “mint shisha”.

If we use the wheel, and translate some of those notes up a level or two, here is what they look like:

Nose: Opens rich with sweet fruity notes, with underpinnings of spice, floral, and wood. With air, a note of sweet herbal/floral notes arrives then evolves into more sweet fruit or cooked fruit and earthy and herbal aromatic notes. Slowly, exotic notes of tropical and berry fruit notes lift above the milieu.

Palate: The flavor of sweet, floral notes joins the sweet citrus and sweet herbal/floral notes from the nose but these sweet flavors are balanced by tangy sweet and bitter fruits. Subtle notes of bitter/earthy flavors lend it depth.

Finish: Unexpectedly earthy, with some spicy and nutty notes.

While I appreciate and hope to someday understand the full notes Barrell provided for this batch, I have found the latter notes to be much more approachable and closer to the experience that I will have.

In fact, after doing a full blind tasting of this batch, here are my notes:

Nose: Very sweet and fruity with a hint of banana.

Palate: I found it to be immediately flavorful and textured with a sharpness on the tongue like a coke or soda water. It has a woody/tannic feel to it. Of the three (whiskeys in the pairing), this was the most flavorful, or at least the flavors pop out the most.

Finish: The finish stuck out as sweet and earthy (I put a “Leather” note with a 2/10 confidence level on it since I’m still trying to figure it out).

My notes, while minimal and simple, connect pretty closely to the translated notes. They’re close enough for me to read the translated tasting notes, taste the whiskey, and be comforted that I bought the right whiskey.

I’ve done exactly that. This batch is a 9/10 for me.

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