I wish I knew more about bourbon. All I really know is that I like the taste, and that there are some I enjoy more than others. This may be the result of growing up in Kentucky, where my friends and I were introduced to good bourbon at an early age. Had I grown up in Poland or Scotland or the Caribbean, perhaps I’d prefer vodka or Scotch or rum. But bourbon is my thing. The details don’t interest me, however. Percentages of various mashes, types of wood in the barrels, the aging process? I just don’t get it. From people with more discerning palettes, I’ll hear things like “vanilla overtones” or “notes of cherry and chocolate.” Here is part of an actual description I found on a website for one of my favorite Kentucky bourbons:
Sight: The bourbon has a middling, coppery amber color, perhaps midway between amber and tawny; it scores around 2.0 and is therefore “russet muscat” on the color scale.
Aroma: It starts with floral, grassy, and slightly nutty honey with some cherries, citrus, and creamy vanilla buttercream. There’s a very present, but not overpowering, charred and freshly cut wood scent. I also get a bit of maraschino cherry, red grape, and berry. The alcohol here is quite strong for 43.3 percent; I’d honestly think that it was more like 48-50 percent. With swirling, I smell more of the honey and orange sweetness with some vanilla buttercream and mint. There’s a wood base that adds slightly grassy, nutty, and musty notes. It’s oddly more oaky than I would expect.
Taste and Finish: “Chewing” brings out a little more honey, roasted brown sugar, and cherry sweetness intermingled with a noticeable dose of wood and spice with smaller doses of mint, orange peel, corn mash, roasted marshmallows, and dark chocolate. Charred oak bitterness leads the finish, followed by hints of raw cocoa powder, orange peel, and minty licorice.
It’s hard to believe that all this information came from a two-ounce pour over a few ice cubes. My guess is that trout are kind of like I am with bourbon. They don’t know, or care, what goes into the making of a good fly—the type of hook, thickness of the thread, source of the intricately dyed feathers. They simply know what they like when they see it. And they know that they want to eat it. Or not eat it, depending on the day. My description of a good trout stream would be similar to a whiskey aficionado’s description of fine bourbon:
Sight: The stream is immediately pleasing to the eye, inviting and beckoning while lacking the intimidating depth and current that keep so many competing streams from becoming its equal. Access is easy, with open spaces between low-lying trees and scrub allowing for decent if tightly circumscribed backcasts. Glimpses of quail and fox squirrels during the approach heighten the feeling of promise and expectation. The water’s obvious thermal qualities, immediately cooling to the legs even through waders and denim, bring to mind the deep rocks from which it is sourced, cooling yet not freezing, refreshing while at the same time challenging and revealing. The 57-degree water is bracing; I’d honestly think it was 52- to 54-degrees. The stones are rounded and large, some too large to step over, but, in general, firm and not rolling beneath the feet. Current is strong, yet delicate and pleasing overall. Slime is minimized and footing is reasonable. Clarity is excellent, allowing sunlight to pierce the shallows, yet dark enough in selected pools to afford comfort and security to the inhabitants.
Aroma: The overall effect is one of pine and other conifers, with clear notes of oak, balsam, maple, decomposing-leaf litter, and hickory, though not enough to overload the senses. This scent is enhanced by the tang of impending rain. A second swirl reveals overtones of earthworms and acorns, with hints of fern; light breezes effect a cooling sensation on the face reminiscent of juniper and gin. Scents of sharp granite and softer limestone bring to mind chalkier environs, while not masking the overall spring-like nature of the habitat.
Taste and Finish: Trout content could be higher, but number and size are decent for a stream of this vintage. Competing flavors such as whitefish and creek chub are low but still detectable. Aquatic forms of arthropod life are abundant, yet not so overpowering that baitfish are excluded from the diet, although the addition of sculpins would improve the overall experience. A second or third taste reveals hints of adjacent reptiles and amphibians, possibly with small mammals nearby. The absence of hellgrammites is a shame and perhaps a missed opportunity, but possibly countered by the large-ish scuds in deeper pools. Overall, the effect is more than pleasing to the palate, and the excellent finish, with or without salmonids in the net, remains in the heart and in the mind for months, possibly years, afterwards, leaving a taste in your mouth of God watching over you.
Maybe these descriptions could be the start of something big, even earning me enough money to afford a bottle of the really good stuff.
JODY MARTIN is the Associate Vice President for Research, and Curator of Crustacea, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He writes for a variety of natural history and flyfishing journals and magazines, and in 2021 won the Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award. An FFI-certified casting instructor, he hosts retreats in California and Pennsylvania that are based on his book, The Spirituality of Fly Fishing. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California.