Is Music the Key to Understanding Bourbon?
We asked whiskey makers around the country to tell us what their spirits taste like by comparing them to music.
How do you describe your favorite spirits? As having notes of vanilla, honey, or baking spices? Or, if you fancy your palate more advanced than that, perhaps you say marzipan, hibiscus, or Limousin oak from a charming corner of France where time moves more slowly.
Whatever the case, tasting notes—found in advertisements and overheard at stuffy bars—often resemble a bizarre grocery list. And for good reason: spirits share phenolic compounds with seemingly unrelated items. We can train our palates to detect these, thus creating valuable references and touchstones we can use as descriptors while tasting them.
But is this really the most interesting way to describe our favorite drinks? I’m going to throw it out there and say no. Yes, sensory descriptors serve an important purpose by helping us navigate our way through a drinks many sensory nuances. But do they really get to a drink’s character? Do they describe its soul?
As in much of the drinks world, the rules of connoisseurship—arbitrary as they may be—are shaped by wine. Paying attention to what kind of glass you use? That started with wine. Absurdly precise 100-point rating scales? Those also started with wine. Awards pageants? Wine again. Sensory-based tasting notes? Don’t be surprised when I say they started with wine.
But tasting notes weren’t always this way. Historically, wine was often described in ways that attempted to describe its personality, the way a novelist might describe a character in a story. In 1932, the wine critic and classical scholar H. Warner Allen described the Latour 1869 this way: “The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up a noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’”
No, this description doesn’t tell you whether the Latour 1869 carries hints of nougat or not, but it does get to something deeper, albeit in somewhat ridiculous fashion. If you believe that individual drinks have specific personalities, as I do, then you realize that sensory descriptors only go skin deep. They’re like the judges at a beauty pageant, holding up note cards numbered one to ten. Those little cards aren’t the whole story.
When I first read about H. Warner Allen, years ago, his colorful tasting notes lodged in my brain. While researching my first book, a history of American whiskey, I remembered them every time distillers started describing their products to me in terms of common flavors. These were helpful up to a point, but could soon muddle together, losing meaning.
I began attempting to liven things up by asking distillers to describe their products in new ways, like H. Warner Allen would do—compare them to movie or book characters, say, or to famous artworks. These two frameworks proved difficult, but when the comparisons involved music…faces would brighten—or scrunch—and wheels began turning. The answers were always enlightening, providing unique perspective about the products at hand. Products that were once familiar took on new light.
Which is how the idea for this series—Spirit Sounds—originated. Spirits makers are invited to compare their products to music: a band, performer, album, genre, song, or whatever else they feel like. They answer the question: What music most embodies your product, and why? They can choose one particular expression or an entire product range, so long as it’s a regular offering and not a limited release.
This is a project intended to get people to think of their drinks in a new way, to get to know them better. Or perhaps discover new drinks they otherwise would have passed by. Musical comparisons make perfect sense. Listening to music—live or at home—with a drink in hand is a lovely way to spend time.
For this round, we’ve chosen to focus on just bourbon, selecting a sample of our favorite answers from the people who help make the spirit.
“In an ideal world, FEW Spirits Bourbon embodies the spirit of the Grateful Dead–those that love it, love it. Nontraditional, proudly experimental, and not afraid to fail. FEW Bourbon is an extended jam on the expression of bourbon and what it can be.”-Paul Hletko, founder, FEW Spirits
“My Morning Jacket–Kentucky bred, bold, and keeps you coming back for more. As the lyrics of ‘Steam Engine’ state: ‘It’s not the dream that makes you weak. It’s not the night that makes you sleep. But it’s a voice, and it’s a choice to call you out or stay at home.’” -James Cox, artisanal assistant distillery manager, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
“Kings County Bourbon has the same notes as Alt-Country, a defunct and ill-defined genre that found inspiration in an old and deep tradition in American music, especially rural American music, but without the overt nostalgia of country or folk. Artists and bands like Steve Earle, Whiskeytown, Wilco, Will Oldham, Jason Isbell, and even Jack White have drawn influences from Appalachian and so-called old-time music but with a contemporary expression. Kings County also has an modern indie sensibility, like its Brooklyn context, but also a thread of influence from old Appalachian sources—old-time and truly small-scale handmade whiskies that died out when the whiskey business commercialized after Prohibition and again in the 1980s.”-Colin Spoelman, co-founder & head distiller, Kings County Distillery
“As a child I used to play with my father’s vinyl collection, and my brothers and I used to giggle at Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” album, as if it was off-limits to see. But that emotional touch point from almost 30 years ago still tugs at my heartstrings every time I hear ‘Over the Hills and Far Away.’ I hear endless anecdotes from Old Forester fanatics about their fond memories of the brand, and more often than not the stories always lead to reminiscence of a family member. Both brand and band share strong generational transcendence, and each peaked success in the 1970s. They are classic poster-children of their respective categories, and survived through adaptation and innovation.”-Jackie Zykan, master taster, Old Forester
“Marshall Grant wrote about Johnny Cash in his autobiography, saying, ‘There was a power and presence in his voice.’ Cash hid nothing, took chances, and made mistakes. Always staying true to himself, his work resonated with all walks, from prisoners to politicians. Wyoming Whiskey likewise does things our own way, doing it right, and hiding nothing. We’re defiantly not from Kentucky, standing alone on a confused shelf of options by being true to Wyoming and everyone who gives us a shot. We walk the line.” -David Defazio, founder, Wyoming Whiskey