Do you want to love bourbon, but aren’t sure where to start? This Beginner’s Guide will help you learn How to Drink Bourbon!
When it comes to the world of liquor, it’s no secret that I have a favorite. One tipple passes my lips, flavors my food, and warms my heart with a “Kentucky hug” more than any other– Bourbon. Whether you’re a lifelong bourbon fan, or are just getting started– this guide on How to Drink Bourbon is here to help you along your way!
First, we’ll look at a few bourbon basics, then we’ll talk about how to taste bourbon, and of course– there will be bourbon recipes!
Learn More: Want to learn about how to drink bourbon ON SITE at distilleries? Check out my Guide on how to Tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail!
Bourbon vs. Whiskey: What Is Bourbon? What Is Whiskey?
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Whiskey is an alcoholic beverage made by distilling a fermented grain mash. The grains can include barley, corn, rye, and wheat– and whiskey may contain additives and flavorings.
Bourbon, on the other hand, is a type of whiskey highly regulated by the U.S. government. If a distiller doesn’t follow the rules, the product can’t be labeled bourbon.
To be labeled bourbon, it must:
- Must be made in the United States
- Contain at least 51% corn in the fermented grain mash
- Must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof)
- Must be no more than 62.5% ABV (125 proof) when it enters the barrel
- Must be stored in BRAND NEW charred oak barrels
Fun Fact: Whiskey can be spelled with or without the e. Traditionally, whiskey is the American spelling, and whisky is the Scottish spelling– but you’ll find the terms used interchangeably.
Is All Bourbon Made in Kentucky?
No, it just has to be made in the United States. However– 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky!
Why? The answer is limestone. Limestone is used (and needed) to filter the water for the highest quality bourbon– and Kentucky just happens to be full of limestone.
Are there Flavor Additives in Bourbon?
No. Bourbon gets all its flavor from the charring on the brand new oak barrels.
It is illegal to add any type of flavoring to bourbon– which means you can drink it and cook with it, all without worrying about chemical additives.
Trend Alert: Some distillers are trying out new (and exciting) techniques where they finish aging the bourbon in sherry or brandy barrels. Any non-traditional, non-regulated techniques will be listed clearly on the label.
Is Bourbon Gluten-Free?
Good question. It depends on who you ask.
The short answer is, bourbon is made with grains that contain gluten, but the distilling process should– in theory– destroy any gluten.
But not everyone agrees, so if gluten bothers you, or you have Celiac’s, check with your doctor before consuming bourbon.
What are the Angel’s Share and the Devil’s Cut?
As the bourbon ages in barrels, the liquid expands into the wooden barrel, and then shrinks back out of the wood because of changes in the weather.
Some bourbon is lost to evaporation as it ages. This is called the angel’s share.
Some bourbon is lost within the wood as it ages. This is called the devil’s cut. (Have you tried Jim Beam’s Devil’s Cut Bourbon? It’s made with bourbon extracted from the barrel walls.)
And that, my friends, is one reason why bourbons that are aged for a long period of time can be so expensive– there simply is less bourbon in the barrel to bottle.
Kentucky Legend: When you drive through the Kentucky countryside, you’ll see lots and lots of black barns. Why black? The bourbon distilling process leaves a black residue on nearby trees and buildings. Legend has it that during Prohibition, the locals would paint their barns black to help keep their stills hidden!
How to Read Bourbon Labels
Bourbon labels can get a little– a lot– complicated and confusing. Here are a few labels to look out for while you’re shopping:
- Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey: This means that instead of blending multiple barrels together to get a standardized flavor, this bourbon is from a single barrel. These bottles tend to cost more than blended bottles.
- Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey: This term appears on a lot of bottles, and means that only a small number of bourbon barrels were mixed together. However, it isn’t actually a regulated term.
- Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbon whiskey aged at least 2 years. It may be mixed together from multiple barrels or bourbon recipes.
- Blended Bourbon Whiskey: A blend of whiskey and bourbon whiskey that contains at least 51% bourbon whiskey. (This product may contain non-bourbon whiskeys!)
- Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey: A blend of straight bourbon whiskeys.
- Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon Whiskey: A product from a single distillery, all from the same season, bottled at at least 100 proof, that has been stored at a federally bonded warehouse for no less than four years.
Still Curious? Want even more information about whiskey labeling? Check out this Whiskey Label 101 tutorial.
What Does Bourbon Taste Like?
You’re just going to have to taste some and find out! (It’s tough, I know!) But if you’d like a little guidance, here’s a tasting guide to get you started.
Bourbon can have very complex flavor profiles, but in his book Bourbon Curious, Fred Minnick breaks bourbon into four main flavor profiles:
- Grain Forward:
- Great for beginner bourbon drinkers!
- These bourbons tend to be younger, and taste strongly of grains.
- Try Smooth Ambler’s Small Batch or Town Branch’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Nutmeg Forward:
- These bourbons have spicy or nutty overtones.
- Try Elijah Craig’s Barrel Strength or Evan Williams Black Label
- Caramel Forward:
- My personal favorite!
- These bourbons pick up more of the sweet flavor from the charred oak.
- Try Maker’s Mark Barrel Strength or Maker’s Mark Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Cinnamon Forward:
- The husband’s favorite!
- These bourbons are spicy, and tend to have rye-heavy mash recipes.
- Try Maker’s Mark 46 or Bulleit Bourbon
If you want more tasting help, I highly recommend Bourbon Curious as a tasting guide!
Fun Fact: Did you know there’s a bourbon equivalent to a wine sommelier? In the world of bourbon, they’re called Stewards.
How to Drink Bourbon: Start By Looking at the Bourbon
Once you’ve picked a bourbon (or two) to taste, pour some into a glass. Before you take a sip, look at the bourbon. Swirl it around the glass. Smell it. Hold the glass up to the light, and look for the following:
- Color: Bourbon ranges from light and golden to dark and caramel. The darker the bourbon, the older it is.
- Legs: As you swirl the bourbon, look to see if it coats the glass. Some bourbon will have legs that cling to the glass, and some won’t.
- Smell: Open your mouth and place it directly over the glass. Then, breathe in with your mouth (and not your nose). This will let you smell and taste without your nose being overwhelmed by the alcohol scent. Breathe in– does the bourbon smells sweet, peppery, or especially spicy?
How to Drink Bourbon: Taste it!
Now, it’s time to taste the bourbon. Sip just a little bourbon, and let it roll around your mouth, over your tongue, and then smack your lips. This is called a Kentucky Chew.
As you swallow, the bourbon will warm you up as it goes down. This is called a Kentucky Hug.
Should I Add Water? What About Ice?
Here’s a few basic ways to drink your bourbon:
- Neat: Bourbon with nothing else added. Taste bourbon neat the first time you try a new kind.
- With a drop or two of water: Adding just a drop or two of water will help bring out aromatics in the whiskey. (I like to add a drop or two when the whiskey is particularly strong.)
- On the rocks: Adding ice can help the other flavors in the bourbon bloom and stand out.
How to Drink Bourbon: Bourbon Cocktails!
After you’ve tasted a few kinds of bourbon, go ahead get creative! Try some bourbon cocktails, and let me know which is your favorite in the comments.
↓ Bourbon Cheat Sheet ↓
Want some SAVORY BOURBON recipes too? Try these:
- Bourbon Salmon with Pecans
- Pan-Seared Cod with Kentucky Bourbon
- Kentucky Bourbon Sweet Potato Casserole
Want a few BOURBON DESSERTS? Try these: