How To Drink Bourbon: The Classic American Drink

Picture a smokey jazz or blues club in the deep American south, and you'll probably see a glass of bourbon on ice sitting on a worn bar counter. 

Distilled in Kentucky, bourbon has long been synonymous with the Southern U.S. If you have never had it or want to explore it more in-depth, pull up a barstool, and let's wade into the world of bourbon!

Bourbon's roots

Bourbon gets its name from where it originated - Bourbon County, Kentucky. First made in the 1700s, it didn’t gain popularity until a century later, around 1860. Back then, bourbon was transported from Kentucky down the Mississippi River to Louisiana, ending up on Bourbon Street.

Today, it's made all over the U.S. However, many distilleries don’t call it bourbon. This is in honor of the traditional distilling process that involves limestone water and the climate unique to Kentucky.

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is made mostly from corn which is distilled and aged in barrels. This whiskey carries sweet flavors with the boldness of charred vanilla and spice. 

Every distillery has a unique process to make this decadent whiskey, but they must adhere to 6 specifications for it to qualify as bourbon:

  1. It must be made and distilled in the U.S.A. 
  2. It must be made with at least 51% corn. Other grains, like wheat, rye, and barley, can be used to make up the remaining 49%.
  3. The aging process must occur in "new" but charred American oak barrels. There are no requirements to how long it must age, but to be classified as "straight," it must age at least 2 years.
  4. It must have a maximum of 80% ABV (alcohol by volume) when distilled.
  5. It must have a maximum of 62.5% ABV as it enters the barrels.
  6. It must be 40% ABV when bottled.

Types of bourbon

One step to learning how to make bourbon is diving into the different types. Almost all bourbons are produced with a mash bill of corn, rye, and malted barley, but recipes vary, for example:

  • High rye bourbon contains more than 10% rye. It’s bold with a spicy flavor.
  • High corn bourbon contains more than 51% corn. It’s a much sweeter bourbon.
  • Wheated bourbon is distilled with wheat instead of rye. It has a softer finish with vanilla and caramel hints.
  • Straight bourbon is aged for at least two years. It’s free of any additional color or flavor. Some consider this to be the best sipping bourbon.
  • Blended bourbon whiskey can contain other flavorings, coloring, or spirits, but it has to be at least 51% straight bourbon. 

Bourbon for beginners

Here are some tips if you are drinking bourbon and want to enjoy the taste:

Read the label 

As with anything you eat or drink, reading the label is crucial. Here are some pointers:

  • Try to find the term "straight bourbon." This means that the contents are color and flavor-free. This is the real deal and a great place to start.
  • Look for the bourbon’s age on the label. If you can’t see this, it’s probably a young bourbon.
  • Look for the proof of the bottle. Proof means how much ABV (alcohol by volume) there is. A high proof doesn't mean that it tastes better or has a more robust flavor; it just means it has more ABV.

Choose a glass

There are glasses designed for getting the most out of the bourbon drinking experience. For example, the Glencairn glass is curved to allow the aroma to enter your senses more thoroughly.

A broad-based glass is designed to capture the bourbon aroma and filter them towards the top of the glass. Here you will get a pleasing whiff of your drink before your first sip. 

The pour and the sniff

A standard pour for bourbon is 1.5 oz for one shot, 2 oz for a neat bourbon pour, and 3 oz for a double. Let your pour sit for a moment, then give it a swirl to open up those aromas. 

Place your nose at the opening of the glass and give it a good sniff. When you inhale, have your mouth open slightly to pull in the taste slightly. You may notice hints of wood, vanilla, smoke, or even caramel.

Check the color

Most aged bourbons develop a rich amber color. The liquid ‘breathes' as it enters and leaves the wood barrel's char, creating a dark color. 

After you pour your drink, swirl it around and hold it up to a light to check for clarity. Is it dark, or is it light? Notice any dark drips (called "the legs") that go down the side of the glass. This will typically determine the alcohol content. More legs equal more alcohol.

The taste

We're finally ready for that first sip. Let the liquid roll around your mouth before you swallow it. Allow the flavor of the first sip to linger. Then breathe out of your nose and mouth at the same time to allow your taste buds the full experience.

Here you'll detect subtle and direct flavor profiles. Do you notice any fruity or earthy notes, maybe even with a bit of spice? Take your time with each sip, savoring and appreciating all the rich flavors.

Mixing your bourbon, or not?

Some purists insist that you can only have bourbon neat, but we believe it’s up to the person drinking it! Here are some options:

  • Neat- Purists may enjoy their bourbon neat, served straight out of the bottle at room temperature to get all the flavors without anything like ice or water interfering. This is an old-fashioned way of drinking that’s stood the test of time.
  • Bourbon on the rocks- Some prefer this way to drink bourbon over an ice cube or two. It gives the liquid a chill and may even enhance the flavor. 

For some added fun, try the ice ball maker for perfectly shaped, super clear ice spheres. It's the perfect slow-melting ice for a flawless "bourbon on the rocks."

  • Bourbon on the water - Add a few drops of water to open up the aroma slightly.
  • Bourbon cocktails - To some, mixing anything into bourbon is wrong, even just ice! To others, using an excellent bourbon to make a cocktail is a winner. Some examples of bourbon mixed drinks are The Manhattan, The Mint Julep, and The Old Fashioned.
  • Bourbon and beer - Yes, this is a thing! This drink combines bourbon with lager, maple syrup, and lemon juice to make an effervescent drink that tantalizes the senses.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy a pour of good bourbon!

Whether you're a beginner in the bourbon world or a seasoned connoisseur, the experience can be exhilarating. 

Enjoy your bourbon refined, on the rocks, straight up, mixed in a cocktail, or with a splash of water. However you like it, bourbon is the perfect drink for anyone searching for a unique and sweet spirit sensation.