What Is The 'Kentucky Chew' When Tasting Bourbon?

To some, the taste of bourbon can be hot and harsh. But others savor the rich complexities that come through with fine bourbons. Vanilla, smoke, caramel, and toffee are just a few of the subtle notes that develop throughout the fermentation, distillation, and barrel-aging process that makes bourbon so unique. To fully taste a quality bourbon, you need to do more than sip the amber liquid. Master tasters know that the whole mouth must be involved to appreciate bourbon fully. That's why they employ what's known as the "Kentucky Chew."

How does one "chew" a liquid? The "Kentucky Chew" is the playful name for a method of bourbon tasting that — since you're tasting rather than simply drinking the bourbon — begins before the alcohol ever reaches your lips. To start, one should observe the color of the bourbon in the glass, as this can be indicative of what's to follow. A lighter color often means a lighter flavor profile. After observing the color, you'll want to sniff the bourbon. The "hot" scent of alcohol will, of course, be apparent, but other warm scents will likely come through as well. The aforementioned vanilla, as well as maple syrup, sweet corn, tobacco, cinnamon, rye grains, and even rose petals, are just some of what can be detected.

Once it's time to actually taste the bourbon, a sip is all that is needed, and it should be aimed at the middle of the tongue. This is where the "chew" comes into play.

Mouths open

First and foremost, for a proper Kentucky Chew, your mouth should be slightly open as you taste the bourbon to introduce air and bring out the full breadth of flavors. Sip a manageable amount and move the whiskey about the mouth in a fashion not unlike chewing — it's in this way that all of the taste buds, which are grouped together in salty, sweet, sour, and bitter detecting bundles, are exposed to the bourbon. The flavor will begin to unfold around the mouth — and nose, as the smell is an important component of taste — as the bourbon is moved around and begins to warm.

After delicately swishing the bourbon for five to ten seconds, you can swallow it. Upon swallowing, smack your lips to introduce more air to the palate and bring out lingering flavors known as "the finish."

The history of the "Kentucky Chew" can be traced back to Jim Beam's grandson and master distiller Booker Noe. Noe was known to methodically taste the whiskies he was selecting, rolling them around and smacking his lips to bring out all of their flavors. That tradition is carried on to this day by his son, Fred Noe, who is Jim Beam's current master distiller.