3 Appropriate Ways to Drink Bourbon
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 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. Then, if you’re new to the bourbon world, prepare your palate for some rich, oaky juice, and indulge in a classic American favorite.
Table of Contents
How to Drink Bourbon Whiskey - Before Tasting
We can’t simply pour a glass of bourbon and chug it. It’s a pleasure that should be enjoyed and fully experienced. If you’re tasting multiple bourbons, you’ll make distinctions easier than trying one at a time. 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 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 it should be listed if it’s a premium bourbon. If there’s no age statement, 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. Again, 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 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.
Special bourbon glasses aren’t required, but some shapes help enhance the aromas and tasting experience. Glasses with wider mouths allow you to 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 your aroma.
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 the aroma. 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 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 slowly slide down the glass's side- these are called “legs,” and they enable you to assess its alcohol content. The more the legs, the higher the alcohol content.
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.
How to Drink Bourbon- Learn 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 1700s, it didn’t become well known until the 1860s. 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 its 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.
- It can’t be more than 62.5% ABV when it enters the barrel.
- At bottling, it must be at 40% ABV or more, which is standard for other whiskeys.
How Bourbon is Made
Making bourbon is a lengthy process, but we will explore just the basics here. 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. It takes on a deeper brown-amber color, a deeper flavor, and more sweetness as bourbon ages. Once a barrel is used, it cannot be used for bourbon again; but it can be used to age soy sauce and whiskey or 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 barrel's char, which is called the “Devil’s share.”
After the aging period, the juice is bottled and shipped worldwide. 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 they 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 - 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.
Our pick for drinking bourbon neat: Lucky Seven Spirits "The Jokester" 6 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey
Buy it in our bottle shop here.
If you prefer the element of surprise, you should consider our Bourbon of the Month Club. Each month we curate a shiny, rare bottle of bourbon and send it to your (or your friend's) doorstep. Gift the element of surprise with Taster's Club! Want to see what it's like to open up a Bourbon of the Month?
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 sweetness to come through.
Our pick for drinking bourbon with water: Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Buy it in our bottle shop here.
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.
Our pick for drinking bourbon on the rocks: Wild Turkey 81 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Buy it in our bottle shop here.
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 spicy bourbon more palatable.
Our pick for drinking bourbon in cocktails: Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
Buy it in our bottle shop here.
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. For example, 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.
Our pick for cooking with bourbon: Redemption Bourbon Whiskey
Buy it in our bottle shop here.
Frequently Asked Questions about How to Drink Bourbon
If you are drinking bourbon, you are drinking at least 51% what?
Bourbon is made with at least 51% corn. The American Bourbon Association states that in order to be classified as a bourbon, the whiskey must be distilled from a mixture of grains, or mash, that’s at least 51% corn.
What is the proper way to drink bourbon?
You can drink bourbon in various ways like neat (without anything), on the rocks (with ice), with a splash of water, in a cocktail, and in a meal. Bourbon is extremely versatile and pairs well with many mixers and food.
What glass should I drink bourbon in?
A red solo cup (just kidding). We recommend an Old Fashioned glass (also called a rocks glass) or a Glencairn glass. We also have an entire guide dedicated to bourbon glasses if you want a more detailed review.
How strong is bourbon?
Bourbon must be 80 proof or more but is typically between 80 and 100 proof. Some connoisseurs consider 100 proof as the traditional benchmark for a spirit.
What mixes well with bourbon?
Pretty much anything, but water, coca-cola, soda water, ginger ale, coffee, angostura bitters, cherry, and anything that complements the taste of bourbons like caramel, vanilla, oak, toasted rye, oatmeal, cornbread, cinnamon, and chocolate.
So, how should you drink bourbon? The answer to that question may depend on your taste, but we think everyone should at least try Taster’s Club. It’s the perfect way to explore different bourbons and find your favorite. And who knows – maybe you’ll be the next great American writer or artist, sipping on bourbon while you work. So, join Taster’s Club today and start your journey into the world of America’s Native Spirit.