Fred Noe III is No Stranger to Bourbon
Fred Noe III is no stranger to bourbon. He was born and raised in the “Bourbon Capital of the World:” Bardstown, Kentucky. His great-grandfather was Jim Beam. His late father was the famous bourbon baron Booker Noe. Fred’s face is featured on the label of every bottle of the best-selling bourbon in the world, alongside the portraits of his late great-grandfather, father and the other great distillers from the Beam family who have propelled Jim Beam into being one of the most recognized brands on the planet. So when we were looking for someone to give us lessons on how to host a proper bourbon tasting on Derby Day, Fred was the first expert we sought out. The catty and always entertaining bourbon legend offered advice on how to educate and entertain guests with bourbon, through a practical 4-step process that has been passed down the Beam family for many generations.
Fred started out by sharing the story of how his father taught him the Beam tradition of enjoying bourbon. It happened over 30 years ago when Fred had recently graduated from college and was working at the Jim Beam Distillery. One evening after work, at the family dinner table, Booker told him, “I’m going to teach you how to drink bourbon.” Fred was very surprised by his dad’s comment and in a smartass-way replied, “Pop, I just spent seven and a half years at college. I think that’s the one thing I did learn.” Apparently, Booker was used to his son’s shenanigans and replied, “Well, I’m going to teach you how to really drink it right.” That evening, Booker explained to his son the proper technique of tasting bourbon by using a 4-step process: 1. Examine the color. 2. Nose the bourbon. 3. Taste. 4. Assess the finish.
Before the Beam tasting process can be put into motion, Fred reminded us that his dad always started with the lowest proof bourbon and worked his way up to the higher proofs. Fred stresses, “Don’t start with the higher proof bourbons, because the lower proof ones you taste later will taste like water. I know that’s hard to believe, but I’ve always been told that your palate steps up well, but doesn’t come down as good. Once you’ve experience the intense, bold flavor and characteristics of a higher proof bourbon, then a lighter bourbon will not hit the taste buds appropriately.”
Fred put this principle to practice with the bourbon he lined up for us to taste. The first bourbon on the list was Basil Hayden, which is an 8 year old, 80-proof bourbon. Next, we tasted Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s (in that order) which are 100, 107 and 129 proof respectively.
Step 1. The Color
“The first thing you want to do is look at the color of the bourbon,” Fred told us. “You can tell a lot about the bourbon by examining its hue.” One of the first things you can learn from investigating a bourbon’s color is its age. Bourbon gets its color from aging in new oak charred barrels. Charring creates a caramelized layer which lines the inside of the barrel. During the warmer months, the heat causes the liquid molecules to expand, pushing them to the outside of the barrel and through the charred layer. Colder temperatures force the molecules to contrast and pull the liquid towards the center of the barrel, which pass through the charred layer on their way back. This process of expanding and contracting through the charred layer while the bourbon is aging is responsible for the majority of the flavor characteristics that a bourbon enjoys. Because bourbon acquires its color from the aging process, the longer it sits in the barrel the more color (not to mention flavor) it accumulates.
Age is not the only factor that can affect color. The distiller’s desired proof also manipulates the hue. Commonly, bourbon barrels are dumped together in a large tank, then water is used to dilute the bourbon to the proof the distiller is trying to achieve. Adding water not only dilutes the flavor, according to Fred, but lightens the bourbon’s appearance. “Usually, the lighter the color, the lighter the bourbon will be in flavor.”
Step 2. Nosing The Bourbon
Nosing bourbon should be handled a little differently then what you might be used to with wine. In both cases, you will want to “twirl” the liquid around in the glass to oxidize the product and release aromatic properties and soften the tannins. But with nosing bourbon, Fred preaches the importance of keeping one’s mouth slightly opened, because the high presence of alcohol can dominate what the nose absorbs. He urges, “When examining the aroma, part your lips. Don’t keep your mouth tightly closed. Keeping your lips and mouth tightly closed while you breathe in can cause you to pull so much alcohol up your nose, that the alcohol could overpower the nasal passages. This isn’t like a wine tasting. The alcohol content makes the bouquet quite different.”
Fred says one of the characteristics he looks for when nosing bourbon is its spiciness. Most bourbon contains some rye in its mashbill, along with corn and malted barley. The amount of rye that it contains has a huge effect on how spicy the bourbon is to the palate. Those bourbons that do not contain rye use wheat instead. Those bourbons are sometimes characterized as being softer or smoother than their rye counterparts.
Step 3. Taste
When evaluating the taste, Booker taught Fred a technique that he called the “Kentucky Chew.” The premise is to work the bourbon all over the mouth and palate once you have sipped it. Fred describes the process: “Put it in your mouth and roll it around. Get it all over your tongue, the roof, the sides. Involve your entire mouth in the tasting. This allows the palate to pick up on the sweet, the sour, the bitter notes.”
Fred preaches the following during every tasting he does. “If you taste a bourbon and you react by making a “face,” then it’s too strong. You need to cut it (the bourbon) with ice or water until it’s pleasing to your palate.” Fred is also aware that many folks have had a bad experience with bourbon, brought on by overconsuming the whiskey. Fred’s advice to those people is, “Give it another try. Just don’t drink it up at once.”
Step 4. Judging The Finish
After performing the “Kentucky Chew” it’s time to assess the finish. The duration is the most important element to monitor. If the taste and sensation of the bourbon is quick to leave one’s senses, then it’s said to have a short finish. But if the taster can “feel” the bourbon linger on the palate after it has been swallowed, then the finish is longer.
Fred believes that the “bite” in bourbon comes from the rye. All bourbon recipes have to include a majority of corn, but it is up to the distiller which secondary grains to use. For now, distillers either use rye or wheat as the prominent secondary grain, with most going with rye. Fred claims that the rye not only provides the bite, but can also give a bourbon more complexity.
Now you’re ready to host your own Kentucky Derby bourbon tasting. If only picking the next Derby winner were as easy!
Originally published in the Spring 2010 edition of The Bourbon Review