What does tea tasting have in common with bourbon tasting? More than you and I might have expected.
Toronto tea master John Chaffey and I have been fellow teaists for over a decade. We see each other no less than three times each year at trade shows where we often vie for the same customer. But at the end of the day – if we’re not talking about tea – we’re discussing our other passion, bourbon.
Over the years, we’ve exchanged bottles from our local whisky artisans. I might give him a Woodford Reserve Double Oak and he might bring me Forty Creek, the Canadian whiskey of the year.
All this bourbon camaraderie resulted in a tasting tour de force recently when we attended the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Academy, taught by Master Distiller Chris Morris.
For a day, the two tea masters sat at the feet of one of America’s most innovative bourbon tasters and discovered how memory influences how we taste. We also discovered how much we have in common.
Everyone goes through the day eating, drinking, and sniffing the world around us. But we’re not always fully aware of what we are experiencing.
Charring a bourbon barrel.
We might describe a food as spicy, but is it spicy like red pepper or spicy like cardamom? If something is sweet, is it sweet like molasses or sweet like a ripe banana? We answer those questions when we focus our awareness and allow our memories to help describe what we are experiencing. The name for that awareness is scent memory, a flavor or aroma that reminds us of a past experience.
And because everyone has a different set of memories, each person’s scent memory is different. For instance, if I, remembering my childhood on a farm, say a Yunnan black tea (one of the main teas in my Kentucky Blend) is earthy, that scent memory may mean nothing to a New Yorker who grew up in the city.
In bourbon, I would say the charred oak barrels of Woodford Reserve impart notes of caramel into their bourbons. Yet, that means nothing to someone who has never entered a candy store.
At the Academy, Chris charred and doused a new oak barrel in the yard and we soon sniffed the smoky steam that reminded us of marshmallows toasted over a long-forgotten campfire. That’s a note that is locked into my scent memory and I will look for it every time I taste a new bourbon. I just needed to be reminded of that pleasant childhood experience.
Chef Ouita Michel’s Flavor Wheel
The class was treated to a flavor awakening exercise as Woodford Reserve Executive Chef Ouita Michel led us in a classic focus session centered around her flavor wheel. Each student was presented with a plate of food tidbits – Parmigiano-Reggiano, raisin, dark chocolate, toasted hazelnut, orange, and sorghum. We tasted each food individually and then tasted a sip of Woodford Reserve bourbon. With each comparison, the bourbon echoed back the tasting note we had just experienced. This pairing was intended to reinforce our scent memory and focus our palate on the tasting experience. As a tea blender, this is exactly the skill set I use when tasting teas or creating blends. Thanks to Chris and Ouita, I’m now more keenly aware of those dormant flavor memories. And that’s a sobering lesson! *****
(L-R) Chris Morris, John Chaffey, Elizabeth O’Neill, Bruce Richardson
Bruce Richardson and John Chaffey’s 4-day bourbon tour (hosted at the Richardson home in Perryville, KY) also included visits to Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, the Kentucky Bourbon Heritage Center, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey. Read more about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Ouita Michel and Bruce Richardson talk bourbon, tea, & food.