With but a few prompts from freelance bourbon educator Tim Knittel, the flavors of bourbon are completely unlocked. Knittel is the owner of Distilled Living and leads clients through enlightened bourbon tastings to increase appreciation of the iconic Kentucky beverage.
“I’ve lived in Kentucky most of my life, but I was slow coming to bourbon,” he said. “Some friends had tried to introduce me to it, but only with the usual ‘Here, try this’ approach, and I couldn’t get into it.”
His real introduction to bourbon came while working catering for Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris at his distillery. But it wasn’t until he began working for chef Ouita Michel after she became the chef-in-residence at Woodford Reserve that he became well-acquainted with the flavors of bourbon and how they work with food.
“I had the opportunity to listen in and even occasionally sit in on his tastings numerous times,” Knittel said. “That’s an incredible introduction to the spirit. And on the flip side, I was able to participate in the food pairing experiments as Ouita was designing them. I learned very quickly not only how to taste the nuanced flavors in bourbon but also how to teach others to experience them.”
This ultimately led to his own career path in the world of spirits.
“Describing it as a ‘career path’ makes it sounds intentional,” he quipped. “It was really more a matter of having some unique opportunities and taking every advantage of them.”
Eventually, Knittel was hired by Brown-Forman to provide training on its products for special guests to the distillery, including people in the bourbon industry.
“We live in a time where there are people with a lot of bourbon knowledge, especially bartenders,” he said. “Questions could get very involved and technical, and if I didn’t have an immediate answer, I could get one later. Beyond the technical, people clamored for education on sensory (experience) and appreciating bourbon more. So I used techniques like palate training, food pairings and single-step tastings – plus teaching people how to approach a high-proof spirit to prevent it from assaulting your aroma and flavor receptors.”
After several years at Brown-Forman, he realized there was a huge market for bourbon education, especially in Central Kentucky, an area “in its infancy” compared to Louisville.
“I decided to open shop and offer bourbon education and sensory training for events and for corporations hosting guests to the area, plus in-home like a wine sommelier might do. I can come present to groups in restaurants, certain bars and even (in) Keeneland boxes.”
Knittel said he never tires of the smell and taste of bourbon.
“That’s one of the amazing things about bourbon, it doesn’t have just one smell or taste,” he said. “As you develop sensory training for bourbon, you can begin to detect layers of nuanced aromas. And those aromas will be different, depending on different factors. For example, setting your palate with light fruity or citrus flavors will bring out the light fruity and floral notes in bourbon. Those are usually the hardest to detect, but in a quality bourbon there may be hundreds of flavors.”
When Knittel led me through a bourbon tasting for this story – that included water flavors, different grains and foods like ginger, orange peel and pecans – I went from a “ho-hum” bourbon drinker, maybe taking a few sips a year, to someone who is excited to learn more about its production and wealth of flavors. There are endless facets to explore, and the flavors will differ according to everyone’s unique palate. As Knittel teaches how to taste bourbon in his classes, it always starts with the smell.
“I spent so much time in the distillery at Woodford Reserve that sometimes I could tell which stills were running and where they were in their run based on aroma alone,” Knittel said. “As a bourbon opens, whether through time, dilution or temperature change, new layers unfold and new scents emerge,” he noted.
His favorite bourbon?
“No way” to pick just one, Knittel said. “I’m excited by the experimentation and innovation going on in the bourbon industry, so there will be new spirits to try and to add to my long list of favorites.”
Knittel’s workweek is not all bourbon drinking. He’s currently spending a lot of time laying the foundation for his new business and developing a marketing plan. He also is an avid reader about the industry’s history, development and current events.
“I’ve got a great support network of friends willing to be my guinea pigs and sit through the rough drafts of my presentations and give feedback on any confusing points or anything they want to learn more about,” he said, adding, “It helps that I’m pouring bourbon for them!”
“We’re living in a golden age of bourbon,” he said. “There’s so much to explore and taste and learn about. And I hope I can help people reach a deeper understanding and appreciation of our native spirit.” — Abby Laub