Issue 12 Peggy Noe Stevens Whiskey and Food

Tantalizing the taste buds

Get ready for the ultimate flavor glossary 

Vanilla or caramel. Cherries or peaches. Cinnamon or nutmeg. Almonds or pecans. These may sound like choices for a recipe, and in a way they are. These flavors and many, many more are commonly detected in Bourbon. Distillers carefully craft their spirits with certain flavor profiles in mind. So, a Bourbon tasting can offer just the right mix of mystery with tantalizing hints of the familiar. We all know how an apple tastes, but do we expect to encounter that flavor in a glass of whiskey?

Everyone comes to the table with food memories and the flavors encountered in Bourbon are those you taste in your fruit bin, your breadbox, your spice cabinet, and your secret cache of candy. Whether you and your guests are new to Bourbon or seasoned enthusiasts, your party will be energized when you focus it around a Bourbon tasting. 

People will debate about which fruit, nut and spice flavors they are detecting. One person’s apple may be another’s pear. Which is a better descriptor, corn, or cornbread? They will ask questions. They will vote on favorites. To aid in detecting true flavor, here is a quick flavor glossary with tips of the trade to identify even the most subtle of notes.

The key is understanding the gradual opening of the flavor notes as it hits your palate. If we went to the top floor on an elevator and then casually descended to each floor, making a stop along the way, that describes how your palate relates to “notes”, or the opening of flavors. That leads to describing predominant flavors in whiskey.

When we eat any food, we experience a range of flavors from salty, sour, spicy, bitter, sweet and umami. Flavor is the entire range of sensations at different levels that hit your tongue both physically and through your olfactory senses, as well. A physical trait may also be how we experience hot and cold (cinnamon and menthol) and textural perceptions. The kaleidoscope of these sensations draws our conclusions and general impressions whether we like or dislike a food or beverage. When you do not like the flavor of licorice and taste it in a whiskey, it does not interpret that the whiskey is bad, it is simply not to your liking. Again, the key is understanding the gradual opening of the flavor notes as it hits your palate.  

When conducting a review of a Bourbon’s flavor, I will nose the open bottle just to get my first general reaction of a predominant aroma. Aroma is thought to be 80 per cent or more of flavor. After pouring, I let it sit a few minutes to open and then nose again to see if that predominant descriptor has changed, or still comes through. It is almost like test driving a car before you own it. Nosing and tasting a few more times, subtle influence come in to play and I begin to enjoy the complexity. It is truly a discovery venture and one that is my favorite part of the tasting journey. When I am delightfully surprised by an aroma that may be floral, or deep caramel, it motivates me to go further. When a first nose appears “all alcohol”, or musty, then I know I am in for a wild and bumpy ride.

Organize your thoughts and your senses

Typical Bourbon Aromas and Flavor descriptors to help the host describe Bourbon


Vanilla and variations such as crème brûlée and vanilla icing


Corn meal
Yeasty dough
Warm cereal


Apples – ripe, green, baked
Berry – raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, currants
Citrus – orange, orange peel, lemon, lime, grapefruit
Grapes – wine notes, especially if finished in wine casks


Black pepper
White pepper


Chocolate – dark, milk, white
Sugared dates


Dried flowers / potpourri
Orange blossoms
Peach blossoms


Black tea
Green pepper
Green tea


Oak / cedar
Wood smoke


Corn husk
Grass / hay / straw
Roasted vegetables

Note: No single Bourbon has ALL of these. But usually better Bourbons are more complex and will lend themselves to the application of more descriptors.

What is fruit?
The soft part containing seeds that is produced by a plant. 

What is the definition of spice?
An aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food.

What is sweet?
Having the taste or flavor characteristic such as sugar, or honey.

What is floral?
The term floral is sometimes used to describe presenting aromas and/or flavors which are reminiscent of flowers.

What is nutty flavor?
A rich nutty flavor comes from a combination of a little roast/toasted malt and some biscuity notes. It may also come from the barrel wood.

What are the flavors of yeast?
Yeasty notes represent some floral aromatics and freshness such as a green apple. It can also denote some cereal tones like granola.

What are herbal notes?
A bright, fresh, or sometimes earthy taste. 

Intensity – As you taste each product, determine the intensity of the category. This helps determine what to pair food with, so you do not dominate, or undervalue the flavor. Every flavor can be described by a flavor spectrum from quiet to powerful. The sweet spot on that spectrum is simply determined by you, the taster. An example would be identifying apple notes for “fruit” flavors. It is perfectly fine to say you get an apple essence; however, when you take a deep dive and describe that intensity you do so in a different way. Do you taste a green apple (drier and tart), a golden apple (delicate and sweet), or a red delicious apple (deeper)? Another example is the “sweet” category. You may say you taste sugar. Is it white sugar (generally sweet), dark brown sugar (dialled up sweetness), molasses (rich and deep)? Mastering the flavor language is simply food vocabulary.

Texture – Noting the viscosity and textural feel in the mouth gives a certain weight to each flavor. This is important, as it helps pair food to match, or soften the flavor of the Bourbon. A category that I find helpful to determine texture is how the liquid makes you feel on your tongue. If you take a sip of water, it is easy on the tongue. If you take a sip of cola, there is certainly a sugary feel that coats the tongue. Chew a piece of licorice and it appears rough on the tongue. The same applies to Bourbon. Is the texture smooth and silky, a bit astringent? These textural cues can also play with the perception of flavor.

Flavor influences during the production process

The master distiller has a myriad of variables to consider when dialling up, or down the profile of their whiskey – from the water used during fermentation, to the mash bill, yeast strain, distillation method and barrel. All these variables inform us in ways we describe whiskey. The liquid alone can derive vanillin, clove, cherry, smoke, and other detectable flavors just from the barrel. You can almost create a road map on your palate when learning about how a product is made and breaking down each production stop, considering each as flavor influencers.

So, for a little soft adventure, spend some quality time with your next glass of Bourbon and journey along with your new glossary to see if you may detect the nuances that a particular brand says it stands for in flavor. Truly the fun part of why we compare the different Bourbons that sit on our shelves, but also why it informs us so vividly or what we are drawn to as our favorite products. When I ask a consumer while conducting a tasting of several styles of Bourbon what they like to eat (do they like spicy, sweet, etc.), these ultimately open the window to their flavor palate and look into the crystal ball of Bourbon to predict which Bourbon they will like even before they taste it!  

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