How to Drink Bourbon

How to Drink Bourbon: Tips for Enjoying It

Bourbon is a quintessentially American spirit with a rich history and distinctive flavor profile. For those who wish to embark on the journey of enjoying bourbon, it's essential to understand its nuances and the various ways to appreciate this classic drink. From knowing what makes bourbon unique to exploring different types and flavors, there's a wealth of knowledge to discover. Here is how to drink bourbon, the right way.

In order to fully enjoy and appreciate bourbon, it's important to understand how it's made, as the process has a significant impact on the overall taste and presentation of this timeless spirit. Additionally, learning how to properly taste and assess bourbon, as well as experiment with different temperatures and dilutions, can enhance your overall appreciation for this classic American whiskey. As you dive deeper into the world of bourbon, you'll also discover a variety of bourbon cocktails and appreciate the importance of responsible drinking.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the nuances of bourbon contributes to a greater appreciation for its unique taste and presentation.
  • Discovering the art of properly tasting and experimenting with dilutions can enhance the bourbon drinking experience.
  • Exploration of various types and bourbon cocktails, while prioritizing responsible drinking, allows for a well-rounded appreciation of this classic American spirit.

Understanding Bourbon - What Is Bourbon

Bourbon is a type of whiskey that originates from the United States. It is a highly regulated spirit with a few distinct characteristics that set it apart from other whiskey styles. In order to be considered bourbon, a spirit must adhere to several standard rules:

  • It must be made in the U.S.
  • It must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.
  • It must contain at least 51 percent corn in its grain mash.
  • It must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume).
  • It must enter into a barrel at below 125 proof.

Bourbon is a subcategory of whiskey, which is a term for a spirit distilled from a fermented grain mash, often stored in barrels before bottling. While whiskey can be made anywhere in the world, bourbon is exclusively produced in the United States, making it a truly American spirit. This unique whiskey has gained popularity both nationally and worldwide, with numerous brands offering their own interpretation of this classic spirit.

Drinking bourbon can be an enjoyable experience, especially when done the right way. There are several popular methods to enjoy this iconic spirit, including drinking it neat, with a splash of water, on the rocks, or even in cocktails such as an Old Fashioned. Each method allows the individual to appreciate the bold, aromatic, and smoky flavors created during the intricate production process.

Recognizing the importance of these different methods of consumption can enhance your enjoyment of bourbon and help you develop a greater understanding of this celebrated American whiskey.

The Process of Making Bourbon


Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made primarily from corn, usually at least 51%. Other grains commonly used in the mash bill include rye, wheat, and barley. These grains provide different flavors to the final product. Bourbon often begins with a combination of:

  • Corn: The primary grain, giving bourbon its signature sweetness.
  • Rye: Imparts a spicy, peppery note.
  • Wheat: Offers a smoother, softer flavor.
  • Barley: Adds a creamy texture and helps with fermentation.


After the grains are mashed and fermented, the resulting liquid, called the "distiller's beer," is distilled. Bourbon is typically distilled using one of two methods:

  1. Column Still Distillation: This process uses a tall, multi-chambered column still. Heated steam rises and evaporates the alcohol, and the vapors are condensed back into liquid form. The result is a cleaner, higher-proof spirit.
  2. Pot Still Distillation: A more traditional method that employs a copper pot still. The distiller's beer is heated, and the alcohol vapors rise and are collected in a separate chamber. This method produces a lower-proof, richer spirit.

Regardless of the distillation method, the new-make spirit must be no more than 160 proof (80% ABV).

Aging and Bottling

The distilled spirit is then placed in new, charred oak barrels to age. The charred wood imparts the distinct amber color and complex flavors associated with bourbon. There is no minimum aging requirement for bourbon, although:

  • Straight Bourbon: Must be aged for at least two years.
  • Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon: Must be aged for at least four years.

The aging process allows the bourbon to interact with the barrel, extracting flavors and developing its character. Once the aging is complete, it's time for bottling. Bourbon is usually diluted with water before bottling to reach the desired proof (typically between 80 and 100 proof).

Overall, the meticulous process of making bourbon results in a rich, complex spirit that can be enjoyed in various ways, such as neat, on the rocks, or in classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Mint Julep.

How to Properly Taste Bourbon

Appreciating the Color

Before diving into the taste, it is essential to appreciate the color of bourbon. The color can indicate the age and unique characteristics of the bourbon. Pour your bourbon into a Glencairn glass, which is specifically designed for tasting bourbon, and observe the hue. Generally, a lighter color represents a lighter taste, while a darker shade indicates a more robust flavor.

Smelling the Bourbon

Next, take the time to smell the bourbon. The aroma, or nose, plays a critical role in the tasting process. To properly experience the scent, place your nose slightly inside the glass and angle it to fully appreciate the aroma. Make sure not to close your mouth while doing this, as it allows for better aeration and a more enhanced experience.

Taking the First Sip

When you are ready to take your first sip, do so slowly and deliberately. Let the bourbon touch your lips and the tip of your tongue before allowing it to enter your mouth fully. This initial contact will help you get acquainted with the flavor and prepare your palate for what's to come.

Savoring the Flavor

Once the bourbon is in your mouth, let it linger on your tongue for a moment to fully appreciate the variety of flavors that it offers. Roll the liquid around your mouth, giving it the opportunity to reach all areas of your tongue and allowing you to experience the full spectrum of flavors. After you've thoroughly explored the flavor, swallow the bourbon and pay close attention to the finish, or the lingering flavors that remain after swallowing. Take a moment to reflect on your experience and enjoy the unique characteristics of the bourbon you've tasted.

Temperature and Dilution Impact

Drinking bourbon at different temperatures and levels of dilution can drastically change the whiskey's flavor profile, mouthfeel, and overall experience. It is essential to understand these factors to fully enjoy this American spirit.

Room Temperature: Drinking bourbon neat, at room temperature, allows the drinker to experience its pure, undiluted flavors and aromas. This method of consumption is popular among aficionados, who appreciate the bold, smoky notes created during the production process. However, for some, drinking bourbon neat can lead to intense heat and spiciness, which may be off-putting.

On the Rocks: Serving bourbon over ice cools down the whiskey, reducing the burn and enhancing its sweeter components. As the ice melts, it also dilutes the bourbon, which can open up the subtle flavors and aromas otherwise masked by the high alcohol content. This method can make the spirit more approachable, especially for those who are new to bourbon or prefer a milder taste.

Dilution: Many experts agree that adding a splash of water to bourbon is not a dealbreaker. In fact, water can be incredibly beneficial for unlocking complex flavors and aromas. When it comes to dilution, a drop or two would suffice; it's essential to strike the right balance so as not to overpower the whiskey's character. Experimenting with different amounts of water and tasting the differences can help fine-tune the perfect level of dilution for personal preferences.

In summary, choosing the temperature and level of dilution when drinking bourbon is a matter of personal taste and individual preferences. Understanding the impact of these factors allows the drinker to adjust and customize their bourbon experience, truly appreciating the diverse range of flavors offered by this unique spirit.

Variety - Exploring Different Types of Bourbon

When it comes to exploring the world of bourbon, there are several types to choose from, each with unique characteristics and flavor profiles. Understanding these differences can help you appreciate the complexity and versatility of bourbon as a spirit.

Straight Bourbon is produced in the United States, aged for a minimum of two years in newly charred oak barrels, and contains at least 51% corn in the grain mash bill. This results in a rich, full-bodied flavor often accompanied by notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak. Some popular straight bourbons include Maker's Mark, Buffalo Trace, and Knob Creek.

High Rye Bourbons are those with a higher percentage of rye in the grain mash bill. This variety typically imparts a spicier, more robust flavor profile, making it a great choice for those looking for a more complex sip. Examples of high rye bourbons include Four Roses Small Batch and Bulleit Bourbon.

Wheated Bourbons, on the other hand, use wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain in the mash bill. This substitution gives the bourbon a smoother, softer, and slightly sweeter taste. Some well-known wheated bourbons are Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller.

Cask Strength Bourbons are bottled directly from the barrel without being diluted, resulting in a higher alcohol percentage and more concentrated flavors. These bourbons can be intense, but they provide an authentic taste that many enthusiasts enjoy sipping slowly to savor the intricate nuances. Examples of cask-strength bourbons are Booker's and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.

Finished Bourbons are those that undergo additional aging in secondary barrels, often used for wine, sherry, or port. This finishing process can impart unique flavors, adding depth and complexity to the bourbon. Some examples of finished bourbons include Angel's Envy (aged in port wine barrels) and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked (aged in a second set of oak barrels).

To truly appreciate the variety of bourbon, it's essential to sample different types, whether neat, with a splash of water, on the rocks, or in classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. By understanding the nuances of each variety, you'll develop a deeper appreciation for the craftsmanship and artistry involved in producing this iconic American spirit.

Bourbon Cocktail Suggestions

Bourbon is a versatile spirit, suitable for sipping neat or on the rocks, as well as being a key ingredient in many classic and contemporary cocktails. The following paragraphs offer a few Bourbon cocktail suggestions that cater to different tastes and preferences.

The Old-Fashioned is a simple yet fascinating cocktail that showcases the natural flavors of Bourbon. The recipe is easy, requiring only Bourbon, sugar, bitters, and optionally, orange and soda. Its minimalist approach allows the spirit to shine, making it a popular choice for Bourbon enthusiasts.

Another intriguing option is the New York Sour, a visually striking and complex Bourbon cocktail. It starts with a whiskey sour base, which is sweet-tart and balanced, sweetened with maple syrup for added depth. A layer of red wine is then floated on top, contributing intrigue, complexity, and a touch of fruity acidity to the drink.

For those who enjoy tart and slightly bitter flavors, the Paper Plane cocktail is a great pick. It masterfully combines Bourbon, Aperol, lemon, and the citrusy Amaro Nonino, creating a well-rounded and refreshing beverage.

A Ginger Lime Whiskey Sour offers a spicy twist to the classic whiskey sour by incorporating ginger, along with the zesty flavors of lime. This creative variation adds a kick and is sure to please fans of both Bourbon and ginger.

These are just a few examples of the diverse array of Bourbon cocktails that are possible. To make your Bourbon-drinking experience even more enjoyable, consider experimenting with different flavor combinations and techniques, always respecting the key principles of balance and harmony in mixology.

Safety Precautions and Responsible Drinking

When enjoying bourbon, it is essential to prioritize safety and responsible drinking habits. Drinking alcohol should always be done in moderation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises no more than one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

It is crucial to be aware of your alcohol tolerance and understand how bourbon affects your body. Consuming too much alcohol in a short amount of time can lead to alcohol poisoning, which requires immediate medical attention. To avoid overconsumption:

  • Sip your bourbon slowly, savoring the flavors and aroma.
  • Pace yourself, giving your body time to metabolize the alcohol.
  • Stay hydrated by consuming water between drinks.

Sharing bourbon with friends or in a group setting fosters a more enjoyable and social atmosphere. However, it is essential not to succumb to peer pressure to drink more than you are comfortable with or intend.

Always have a plan for transportation when consumption is involved. Drinking and driving is a dangerous combination and illegal in the United States. Consider the following options:

  • Designating a sober driver
  • Using a taxi or ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft
  • Relying on public transportation, if available

Furthermore, underage drinking is against the law and can lead to severe consequences for both the individual and the person providing the alcohol. Be mindful of the legal drinking age in your country or region and only consume alcohol if you are of legal age.

In conclusion, while it is enjoyable to savor a glass of bourbon, prioritizing safety and responsible drinking habits ensures a positive experience and promotes the overall well-being of oneself and the community.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to serve bourbon on the rocks?

To serve bourbon on the rocks, it's ideal to use a whiskey glass or rocks glass. Add a large ice cube or a few standard-sized cubes before pouring the bourbon over the ice. This allows the ice to slowly melt, without diluting the drink too much, while chilling the bourbon and opening up its flavors.

Should bourbon be consumed with or without ice?

Bourbon can be enjoyed both with and without ice, depending on personal preference. Drinking it neat (without ice) allows one to fully experience the bold, aromatic, and smoky flavors. However, adding a few ice cubes or a splash of water can enhance and open up the flavors, making it more approachable for beginners or those who prefer a milder taste.

How much bourbon should be poured for a proper serving?

A standard serving size for bourbon is usually 1.5 ounces (45 ml). However, one may choose to pour a smaller or larger serving depending on personal preference and the occasion. Remember that it's always better to start with a smaller serving and adjust as needed.

What is the difference between neat, straight, and on the rocks?

  • Neat: Bourbon is served at room temperature with no ice, water, or mixers. This allows for the full appreciation of the complex flavors.
  • Straight: This term is often used interchangeably with neat, but may sometimes refer to a chilled bourbon without any dilution.
  • On the rocks: Bourbon is served over ice, typically in a rocks glass or whiskey glass. The ice slowly melts, chilling the bourbon and slightly diluting it.

Are there any recommended mixers for bourbon?

Bourbon can be mixed with various ingredients to create different cocktails. Some popular mixers include:

  • Soda water, which allows the bourbon flavors to shine without overpowering them.
  • Ginger ale, which adds a refreshing sweetness and enhances the bourbon's warmth.
  • Simple syrup and bitters, as in an Old Fashioned cocktail, which balances the sweetness and bitterness while highlighting the bourbon.

What are some beginner tips for drinking bourbon?

  1. Choose a bourbon that fits your budget and taste preferences. Expensive or fancy bottles are not always better.
  2. Experiment with different serving styles, such as neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, to find what suits your palate.
  3. When tasting bourbon, take small sips and let it sit in your mouth for a moment to fully experience the flavors.
  4. Use a Glencairn glass or whiskey glass to help focus the aroma and enhance the tasting experience.
  5. Remember that there are no strict rules when it comes to enjoying bourbon, so feel free to mix or serve it in a way that you enjoy most.

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