Bourbon is an American classic, associated with jazz, blues, and the American south- specifically Kentucky. It’s an American whiskey, grown and brewed in the USA, and it’s been the drink of choice of artists, musicians, and writers in history, like John Wayne, Raymond Chandler, Frank Sinatra, Dorothy Parker, and William Faulker. But how to drink bourbon – that’s the question.

Every bourbon whiskey lover has their favorite bourbon and their preferred way to drink it, but as the old saying goes, “the best whiskey is the one you like to drink the way you like to drink it.”

Let’s explore some of the basics and how to drink bourbon. If you’re new to the bourbon world, prepare your palate for some rich, oaky juice, and indulge in a classic American favorite. 

how to drink bourbon

How to Drink Bourbon- First Know the Bourbon Basics

Before we get into the specifics on how to drink it, what is bourbon? Where did it come from? And how is it made? Get a bottle ready because we’ve got your questions covered. 

History of Bourbon

Bourbon is the namesake of its birthplace- Bourbon County, Kentucky. Originally made in the 1700’s, it didn’t become well known until the 1860’s. Back then, it was produced in Kentucky and shipped down the Mississippi River down to Louisiana- of course, making its way to Bourbon Street. By tradition, true bourbon comes from distilleries in Old Bourbon County, but new definitions in the laws allow the bourbon to be made anywhere in the US. However, the limestone water in Kentucky and the climate are two of the primary factors in determining the flavors of the final product. In honor of the tradition of real bourbon, most distilleries outside of Kentucky won’t use the term “bourbon” in their whiskeys. 

What is Bourbon? 

Bourbon is a distinct type of American whiskey – a barrel-aged, distilled spirit made primarily from corn. Sweeter than other whiskeys, a quality bourbon tastes like charred vanilla and spice: Each distiller has its methods to produce their bourbon, but it must pass six specifications by law to qualify as bourbon.

  • It must be made in the United States of America. 
  • It must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. Any other grains can be used in the other 49%, and those are usually a combination of wheat, rye, and malted barley. 
  • It must be aged in “new” charred American oak barrels. There is no specification of how long a bourbon must be aged, but if it’s labeled as a “straight” bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years. 
  • It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV.
  • When it enters the barrel, it can’t be more than 62.5% ABV. 
  • At bottling, it must be at 40% ABV or more, which is standard for other whiskeys as well.

drink bourbon

How Bourbon is Made

Making bourbon is a lengthy process, but here, we will explore just the basics. Most bourbons begin with a sour mash, which is a part of the residue of a previous batch of mash, that is set out overnight and then added to a new batch of mash. This process is similar to starting a loaf of sourdough bread.  Bourbon is distilled from a fermented mash of grain, yeast, and water. It’s placed in charred American oak barrels and aged for as long as the distiller chooses. The typical aging period is anywhere from two to 12 years, and sometimes as long as 27 years. As bourbon ages, it takes on a deeper brown-amber color, a deeper flavor, and more sweetness. Once a barrel is used, it cannot be used for bourbon again; but it can be used to age soy sauce and whiskey, or it can be made into furniture. 

During the aging process, some of the liquid permeates through the wood of the barrel or cask. This is called the “Angel’s share”. There is also a certain amount absorbed into the char of the barrel, and this is called the “Devil’s share”. 

After the aging period, the juice is bottled and shipped around the world. By law, nothing can be added to the bottle besides water.

Types of Bourbon

Most bourbons are made with a mash bill of corn, rye, and malted barley, but it can be divided into sub-categories depending on the percentage of each grain or the aging period.

  • High Rye bourbon is made up of more than 10% rye. These are generally spicy and bold. 
  • High Corn bourbon contains more than 51% corn, and they are generally much sweeter than other bourbons. 
  • Wheated bourbon substitutes wheat for rye, so they’re a combination of corn, wheat, and barley. These are a bit softer on the palate and have flavors of caramel and vanilla. 
  • Straight bourbon has been aged for at least two years and has no added coloring or flavoring.
  • Blended bourbon whiskey can contain other flavorings, coloring, or spirits, but it has to be at least 51% straight bourbon. 

How to Drink Bourbon- Before Tasting

We can’t simply pour a glass of bourbon and chug it. It’s a simple pleasure that should be enjoyed and fully experienced. If you’re tasting multiple bourbons, you’ll make distinctions a little easier than if you try one at a time. But whether you’re tasting one bourbon or several, here are some things you should do before taking your first sip.

Interpret the label 

First, check out the label. Bourbon is a pretty broad category, so you want to familiarize yourself with the wording. First, look for the phrase “straight bourbon” because this means the juice is pure- nothing has been added to alter its flavors or colors. You want the real deal before you venture off into other sub-categories. 

Next, check for an age statement. You won’t always find it, but if it’s a premium bourbon, it should be listed. If there’s no age statement, that can mean the bourbon is on the younger side. However, if it’s straight bourbon, you know it’s been aged for at least two years. 

Now check the proof of the bottle, which is just the “alcohol by volume” times two. Just because a bourbon has a high proof, it’s not necessarily better or stronger- only that it has more alcohol.  

Not every bottle features a “Bottled-in-Bond” label, but some still do today. It was a federally-mandated label that was created out of necessity. Before the 20th century, bourbon was sold to taverns and bars by the barrel, and there was no way to distinguish whether there were any substances added that might cushion the bar owner’s profits and make the supply last. Some of these additives included iodine, tobacco spit (to maintain the color), and river water. In 1897, Kentucky’s Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act, which increased the quality of the whiskey for the consumer and also protected the distillers and the federal government. 

If you’re curious where your bourbon was made, check the “distilled by” or “bottled by” portion of the label. Sometimes a spirit is distilled in one place and bottled in another, and sometimes both processes are done in the same place. 

Choosing Glasses

Special bourbon glasses aren’t required, but some shapes help enhance the aromas and tasting experience. Glasses with wider mouths allow you to really smell the bourbon. A Glencairn glass is a curved glass made famous by Scotch drinkers, that can help you capture the aromas of the juice, cueing up your other senses. You could also use a glass with a broad base and a tapered top to capture the aromas and funnel them towards the top. A shot glass generally won’t offer you this experience. If you choose to add a few drops of water to your bourbon, you might decide to use a brandy snifter, which would help concentrate the aromas for you. 

Pouring and Smelling

A standard bourbon pour is the same as other whiskeys- 1.5 oz for a shot, 2 ounces for a neat pour or on the rocks, and 3 ounces for a double. Let it sit for a few seconds, swirl it, and open up the aromas. Place your nose over the edge of the glass as you inhale and slightly open your lips so you can also get a hint of the taste. Each bourbon has its unique smells, but some of the most common descriptions are old wood, charred vanilla, caramel, smoke, and matches. 

Notice the Color

All bourbon begins clear as water, and some varieties are bottled this way- transparent; however, they are only aged for a year. Most other bourbons are aged longer, giving them a brown amber hue. This color is made when the bourbon “breathes” in and out of the char and wood of the barrel. When you pour it into your glass, swirl the glass around, and hold it up in a well-lit room. Notice how dark or light it is, how transparent it is, and how bright it is. This helps you determine the “clarity” between different bourbons.  You might notice thicker drips that slide down the side of the glass slowly- these are called “legs”, and they enable you to assess its alcohol content. The more the legs, the higher the alcohol content. 

Tasting 

Now it’s time for your first sip. Let the juice roll across your tongue and move it around your mouth before swallowing it. Let the flavors linger in your mouth for a few seconds, and then breathe out through your nose and mouth at the same time to get the full range of flavors. Notice if there are fruity notes, earthy notes, or spices. Bourbon isn’t for chugging, so savor each moment of the experience. 

Mixing Bourbon

There are a few ways to drink bourbon, and every bourbon lover has their favorite. Let’s explore some of the most common methods, and you can experiment until you find your favorite. 

Drink Bourbon Neat

Bourbon purists drink their juice neat- which means it’s served at room temperature without anything added. It’s typically poured in a rocks glass, shot glass, snifter, or Glencairn glass. This is the preferred method for seasoned whiskey drinkers, but it’s a great way to get the real deal from a bottle of bourbon.

Drink Bourbon With Water

Another way to enjoy a bourbon pour is with a splash of water. Be careful here as you don’t want to dilute the taste too much, but just a few drops of water will help take off the heat and spice notes, allowing some of the sweetness to come through. 

Drink Bourbon On the Rocks

Some bourbon drinkers enjoy a chilled drink over an ice cube or two. However, not all ice cubes are created equally. Ice chips melt quickly and dilute the juice too much. Regular ice cubes that you make yourself are a little bit better, but they still melt quickly. Bourbon “experts” recommend using ice balls, which are large round balls of ice that keep the drink chilled but melt very slowly for minimal dilution. You could also use silicone molds that keep the glass chilled but don’t dilute the juice at all. 

bourbon on the rocks

Bourbon on the Rocks

Drink Bourbon Cocktails

Bourbon mixes well in cocktails if you like to jazz it up. A bourbon cocktail is sophisticated, classy, and flavorful, and it’s a fun way to try new flavor combinations. 

  • The Manhattan is one of the most famous bourbon cocktails. 
  • The Mint Julep is a refreshing cocktail popular in the southern US.  
  • Bourbon and Coke is a simple, extra sweet drink, but it tends to mask the authentic flavors of the bourbon. We wouldn’t recommend mixing a premium bourbon this way, but it’s a taste worth trying. 
  • An Old Fashioned is made with a bit of ice, sugar, and bitters, which balances out some of the more intense flavors. Instead of masking the bourbon, it accentuates it, making a spicey bourbon more palatable. 

Cooking with Bourbon

Bourbon is so versatile that it’s not used solely for drinking. It can be used in cooking, grilling, and baking, adding delicious flavors to some of your favorite dishes. Bourbon chicken is a classic dish that is popular at Cajun-themed or Chinese food restaurants. Or try a bourbon-infused brown sugar glaze to pour over salmon.

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