Whiskey Nips: Bourbon Flavor Science

Have you ever tasted bourbon and got hints of earthiness, cinnamon, or maybe even strawberry? Well, those products weren't added to the bourbon, because as you know, you cannot add anything to bourbon besides water or more bourbon. But there is a scientific relationship there.

During the process of making bourbon, everything from the grains, barrel, and even the water, help contribute flavor to the final product. When all is said and done, bourbon will contain over 200 different compounds in it. When you recognize the one of those compounds when tasting or nosing your bourbon, it can trigger your sense memory. Did you happen to ever taste coconut in a bourbon? That profile comes from lactones from the barrel, which can also provide a woody flavor.


There are other groups of compounds that contribute different flavors. Vanillin is an aldehyde, which gives you that familiar vanilla flavor. This is a common flavor profile because there are more of these compounds found in bourbon in contrast to others.  Other aldehydes can add almond and grassy flavors. The ester group of compounds can provide fruity flavors such as apple, pear, and even banana. If you taste bitterness and smokiness, that is probably from phenolic compounds.

There are many more specific compounds that provide an array of flavors. It really depends on how plentiful those compounds are, your sense of taste, and your memory, that will help make those connections to the foods you know. Don’t be afraid to say, or think of, things that your bourbon tastes like. It’s all personal. Try some pairings with different foods and see if you can make some connections.


Tony Freund