Bourbon is a homegrown American spirit with a long history. It is also one of the most popular drinks worldwide.
From the obscure and nearly impossible-to-find Pappy van Winkle which connoisseurs will pay big bucks, to simple and affordable options such as Maker’s Mark, to eco-conscious brands like Redwood Empire.
There’s something for everyone. But, it may become overwhelming when asked how to drink bourbon.
While there are no hard and fast rules for drinking bourbon, some pointers to keep in mind to get the best experience from drinking bourbon include:
- Learn to read the label to understand what you’re buying—it contains information such as the age, proof, the distiller’s information, and sometimes what taste profile to expect.
- Diluting bourbon with water can open up more aromas and flavors.
- Pick the right glass—a Glencairn glass for drinking neat or with water, a rock glass when you want to drink your bourbon on the rocks.
- If you’re scared of neat bourbon, mix an Old Fashioned cocktail to allow the bourbon’s tastes to shine through.
We’ll look at the general pointers such as labels, pricing, options for ice balls instead of ice cubes, glassware, and adding water to your bourbon. Afterward, we’ll look at a unique technique to help you appreciate bourbon flavors and elevate your tasting game.
How To Drink Bourbon—General Pointers
While there are no hard and fast rules on how to drink bourbon, some ways are frowned upon and should be avoided. Avoiding the pitfalls will also help you have a better bourbon-drinking experience and help you appreciate the drink.
Let’s look at some pointers, rather than rules, on how to drink bourbon.
Learn How To Read the Label
This might be a bit of a no-brainer, but many people who don’t know bourbon, don’t read the labels. Because bourbon offers various choices, it is essential to understand what the labels’ words mean.
When looking for a bourbon to buy as a gift or to add to your collection, straight bourbon is one of the best options you can seek. It simply means you’re getting a pure product with no additives—an unadulterated product.
The age statement is also important.
Suppose it is a new producer you’ve never encountered or a producer who has recently entered the market. In that case, there might not be an age statement. If it is a new distiller, there probably won’t be an age statement, and the bottle is perhaps a ‘young’ bourbon.
Remember, according to US law, straight bourbon must be aged for at least two years in newly charred oak barrels (American oak is used because it cuts importation costs, and bourbon is an American product, after all).
But there’s an exception on straight bourbon:
- Younger than two years, and you won’t find an age statement.
- Older than four years, and the manufacturers aren’t required to put an age statement either because it is optional.
- Between two and four years, the bottle must bear an age statement.
Is the Price Right?
If you’re a bourbon drinker, don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a single bottle. You can budget around $40 to $50 for a decent bottle without throwing your money after a subpar product.
Check out this post about the best bourbons for beginners.
Lose the Ice Cubes
Finally, we get to the more active part of drinking bourbon.
Ditch the ice cubes entirely. Yep, no ice cubes—they melt too quickly, and you end up with bourbon-flavored bourbon.
Bourbon has a lot of big and bold flavors, and you certainly don’t want to miss them by watering your tipple down.
Ice balls are the best way to get a bit of water into your bourbon (we’ll look at dilution in a moment).
No Shot Glasses
Also, don’t do bourbon shots. It’s a grave insult to your bartender or host and will certainly not score you points in anyone’s books. Bourbon is a drink that should be enjoyed, not washed down like some cheap spirit.
Now we have that out of the way, is there a specific type of glass you should use to drink bourbon?
Although a Glencairn glass is made for Scotch, it won’t harm to drink bourbon from it. Bourbon has a lot of aromas added to it during the aging process. A Glencairn glass is specifically designed to keep them inside so you can smell and appreciate them.
Little Bit of Water, Big Taste Release
Water is not the enemy of whisky in general. Start with a drop or two; you might be amazed how many other flavors come to the fore.
Water—whether added or through the melting ice ball—helps to tame the alcohol burn and spiciness and allows different flavors and sweetness to emerge.
Some of the flavors are oil-based, and with a few drops of water, their chemical bonds are broken, which releases them and allows them to reveal themselves.
Next, we’ll look at some tips on how to drink bourbon and have an enjoyable experience.
How To Approach Drinking Bourbon
With the general pointers out, let’s investigate how you should approach drinking bourbon. Again, no hard and fast rules, just some general advice to help you make the most of your bourbon-drinking experience.
There are four basic ways to drink bourbon:
- Neat—straight out of the bottle, with no added ice or water. The bourbon is served at room temperature.
- On the Rocks—poured over ice in a rock glass. We’ve touched upon ice earlier. If making ice balls seems too much work, consider whiskey stones made from natural stone or even stainless steel. Remember to put them in the freezer.
- Diluted—most whiskeys benefit from a few drops of water, as we pointed out earlier. Start with a drop or two and work your way up until you find the correct ratio for your taste.
- Cocktails—perhaps one of the best ways to enjoy bourbon is to allow it to speak with other liquors and liqueurs in a mixed drink. We’d recommend that you start with a bourbon Old Fashioned first (we’ll look at it a bit later) to truly appreciate its unique flavors and aromas.
Pick the Right Glass
We’re circling back to glassware for a moment. The right glass can undoubtedly elevate your bourbon-drinking experience.
Like a carpenter won’t use a hammer to nail a screw in place but rather a screwdriver; the same can be said for glassware.
Red wine is served in a unique glass, or champagne is done in a flute, enhancing the taste. It allows you to appreciate the drink as nature and the makers intended it to taste.
A Glencairn glass is perfect for swirling the whiskey after you’ve added a few drops of water to allow the water and bourbon to become fully integrated.
A rock glass is best if you like your whiskey on the rocks.
The Kentucky Chew
You probably think we’ve lost the plot… how on earth do you chew a liquid? The ‘Kentucky Chew’ is a technique for examining a bourbon’s taste.
You’ll do the Kentucky Chew as follows:
- Take a small sip of bourbon.
- Swirl it about in your mouth and over your tongue.
- Smack your lips lightly.
- Finally, swallow your sip.
See, easy. As you lightly smack your lips, you’ll also allow air to penetrate your mouth and allow more taste and aromas to come to the fore. The warm feeling you get from sipping bourbon is known as the Kentucky Hug.
Suppose you’ve eaten anything with a strong taste and not used a palate cleanser before tasting the bourbon. In that case, the bourbon’s authentic taste should emerge around the third or fourth sip.
You might also notice that other flavors present themselves after you’ve swallowed. This is known as the ‘finish.’
Mix an Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned cocktail is the granddaddy of cocktails and also a way to allow the bourbon to speak for itself instead of being masked by other ingredients.
Adding a bit of sugar—whether simple syrup or granulated—helps bridge the bitter notes. Water aids the flavors to develop, as we’ve previously seen.
The Old Fashioned is one of the best ways to introduce a novice to bourbon. After you’ve mastered making the perfect Old Fashioned, you can try expanding your repertoire and mixing up a Manhattan or, when you’re more confident, a Perfect Manhattan.
Remember, traditionally, rye whiskey is used in Manhattans, but bourbon works perfectly.
If you’re stuck for inspiration, there are numerous whiskey cocktails where you can replace the whiskey it calls for with bourbon.
These pointers will help you appreciate the bourbon world and how to get the best possible experience when you sip your first bourbon. If you’re a seasoned bourbon drinker, we hope you found something of value to try when you pour your next tipple.
Bourbon is enjoyed best in the way you like it—whether neat, on the rocks, with a bit of water, or in a cocktail—there is no right or wrong way. Just enjoy responsibly.