Last year, members of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, received an invitation to a bourbon tasting inside the museum. It was led by textile artist MJ Kinman, who received a standing ovation before the happy crowd left.
Her visit was timed with an exhibition of her quilts called Facets on Fire: The Gemstone Quilts of MJ Kinman. Most of her recent quilts are based on gemstones, but some of them are also influenced by the artist’s appreciation for the flavors, colors, and history of bourbon. “When people ask what do quilts and bourbon have in common, I say, I live in Kentucky. And in Kentucky, everything has to do with bourbon,” MJ explained. It turns out that the state produces 95% of the world’s bourbon.
Quiltfolk got the inside scoop when we interviewed MJ a few years ago for Issue 12: Kentucky. We even followed her to Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky, to see a quilt the distillery had commissioned her to make, which hangs inside one of its cellars. “Distillers must fire a barrel before putting bourbon into it. I wanted this quilt to look like a fire-infused drop of bourbon,” she told Quiltfolk.
So when we learned that MJ has been out and about leading bourbon tastings for quilters, we reached out and asked her to share her expertise so that our readers can host their own!
How to Host a Bourbon Tasting
Before starting to make her bourbon quilts, MJ did some research. Who knew that in 1964, the U.S. Congress passed laws dictating that bourbon has to be at least 51% corn and can’t be lower than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), among other things? While this type of whiskey has been around a very long time, there has been a bourbon boom for more than a decade. There are hundreds of bourbon distilleries around the country now, more than 70 in Kentucky alone.
Why the boom? It seems to be a combination of changing tastes and a preference for darker alcoholic beverages; the opening of export markets in the EU; and a robust push for bourbon tourism as Kentucky took a page from California’s wine country. Kentucky Bourbon Trail, anyone?
One of the ways to grow new bourbon drinkers and distillers is to literally teach bourbon appreciation. MJ took a short course at Moonshine University, a Louisville-based facility that offers week-long courses for people who want to start a distillery or work in one. But Moonshine University also offers one-day, in-person classes and online courses to get certified as an Executive Bourbon Steward, teaching the science and history of bourbon and how to knowledgably conduct a tasting.
MJ is ready to share what she learned, so y’all can invite friends or colleagues over and host your own tasting. A good place to start is by tasting three or four different bourbons—and MJ has created a PDF you can print out that allows you to score and categorize them. For each bourbon, you will write down the color, aroma, and taste, and then award a score between 1 and 5. On the right hand side of the page, is a list of typical colors (gold, amber, burnt orange, etc.) and flavors to guide you.
What bourbons should you select? MJ suggests you choose a theme, so there is a basis of comparison. “You might compare bourbons with a high rye content (such as Buffalo Trace) and those with a high wheat content (such as Maker’s Mark),” she said. Or you could compare bourbons of the same brand but different proofs or compare bourbons of different ages. Already a bourbon drinker? Maybe you want to taste test your favorite brands side by side. If you’re not sure how to choose, consult with a manager at a good local liquor store.
Before you start, MJ has a couple of great tips, starting with, “Give your guests permission to experience what they experience.” Some people don’t like to drink bourbon “neat” (without ice or water, or mixers), so let people choose how to drink their samples: provide each person a glass of water and have ice available.
As for glassware, a classic whiskey-tasting glass will taper inward and direct the aroma to a person’s nose. But, MJ, who conducts tastings for up to 75 people at a time, uses clear, plastic tumblers, and she pours one ounce of bourbon (enough for 4 or 5 sips) into each glass, which are lined up at place settings.
To help your guests process the tasting experience, MJ offers a quick color fact: The longer a bourbon is in a barrel, the darker it gets. Your sense of smell is also key. She likes to quote two bourbon experts, Susan Reigler and Michael Veach, who have written tasting guides and who have characterized the aroma and taste of various bourbons as though they were divided into storefronts on Main Street. To which shop does the bourbon you are smelling belong? The Candy Shop? (caramel, vanilla, toffee, maple syrup, chocolate etc.) The Wood Shop? (oak, cedar, charcoal, smoke, fresh cut wood.) And so on.
In addition to the scents and flavors MJ lists on her PDF, you might want to download a Bourbon Flavor Wheel from the ModernThirst website, which would be a great visual aid for your tasting.
And MJ also suggests offering small plates with snacks like nuts, dried apricots, and/or chocolate so that guests can experience how these effect the taste of the next sip of that same bourbon. For instance, a guest may want to take three sips of the bourbon, drink some water, nibble on a snack, and then take a final sip of bourbon. She instructs her guests to notice everything about the experience, even down to details like what part of your tongue (middle, sides, front, or back) has the most intense response to a given bourbon.
Finally, bourbon is intense! Especially for people who mostly drink wine or beer, which have a far lower alcohol content. So, before the first sip, MJ advises her guests to take it slow and “avoid putting your nose deep into the glass and taking a big whiff. Your senses will rebel! Instead, hold the glass at chin level with your lips slightly parted. Move the glass from side to side, allowing the scent molecules to float up and into your nose and through your mouth.”
Her final piece of advice: It’s best not to jump into precision piecing or intense machine quilting right after your bourbon tasting!