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We met with Fred Noe, Seventh Generation Master Distiller and great grandson of Jim Beam, in Chicago recently, as he shopped his Signature Craft 12-Year at Chicago’s WhiskyFest. Between lunches and general hobnobbing with other whiskey big wigs like Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, we asked him three things we should be looking for when trying whiskey.

  • 1. VANILLA IN THE NOSE

    Just like when people taste wine or any other alcohol, an important thing to do to make it look like you know what you’re doing is bury your nose in the glass and get a good whiff of the stuff (we know, we know – we’re real technical). When smelling a good bourbon, many people will talk about oaky, and sometimes floral notes, but if you really want to establish yourself as a bourbon aficionado, follow Fred’s advice and look for vanilla notes, as that’s the best indicator of a well-aged booze. “One thing I look for in the bourbons I like is vanilla, which comes through in the aging”, he told us. “It takes about six years or more to get those notes.”

  • 2. THE TASTE

    Taste is a subjective area, but in general, you’re looking for something that’s been mellowed a little with age. Fred insisted that he didn’t mind all the different honey, cinnamon, and other different tasting bourbons that have surfaced over the years (he’s honestly the least snobby person when it comes to mixing your drinks – as long as you’re drinking bourbon and enjoying yourself, he’s happy), but for himself, well, he simply prefers a nice, smooth tasting bourbon. “You’ve got to get a little age on the whiskey to soften it up, and to really let it get a nice note, a nice smooth finish that’s not hot,” he explained. Of course, he took each sip like a pro, smacking it between the roof of his mouth and tongue, then talking about the simple vanilla and deep oak flavors.

  • 3. A SMOOTH FINISH

    The finish to a Fred Noe-approved bourbon is smooth as heck. While you’ll see many whiskey-drinkers quickly shoot back a shot, cringe, then chug a nearby chaser to extinguish the flames (or breathe heavily and refuse a chaser while holding back tears, because they’re men) this is not the reaction of a good bourbon. Fred looks for a “nice finish,” one that, instead of burning your tongue/throat/stomach/soul, “kind of mingles when you swallow it.” In other words, a good bourbon leaves you with a lingering, warm taste that coats the mouth like thick cigar smoke. Fred acknowledges that different people have different tastes, and that’s perfectly ok. That said, he probably isn’t familiar with our preferred whisky aftertaste of mac and cheese…

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