HOW TO DRINK BOURBON:
A BEGINNER'S GUIDE
Bourbon has been around for hundreds of years and is as popular now as it's ever been. Despite its popularity, some interested in bourbon have no idea where to start. Don't overthink it, just get a plan and some bourbon and start sampling. As with any liquor, you can choose to be simple or complicated when drinking your bourbon. Here are the basics on the best ways to enjoy bourbon as a beginner...
Cocktails are probably the most user-friendly way for people to begin enjoying bourbon. Bourbon is mixed with other liquors and wash, a nonalcoholic liquid that will help tame down the intense flavors of bourbon. There are a plethora of different bourbon cocktails, but there are a few that are very popular and have stood the test of time. These include the iconic Mint Julep, which combines mint, sugar, and bourbon and is an integral part of the Kentucky Derby as well as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned.
On the Rocks
While bourbon stands great on its own, some prefer to add ice. Bourbon or any spirit served over ice is referred to as "on the rocks." If you're new to the bourbon game, this can help tame it down and make it easier to acclimate yourself to drinking this spirit. However, taming it down a bit also waters down the flavors, diminishing the experience. To use ice to mitigate the watering down of ice cubes, use big cubes or spheres, which will melt slower but still chill and tamper your drink.
If you opt for drinking your bourbon on the rocks, the glass you want to use is a whiskey tumbler, also known as a rocks glass. This glass is known as a lowball or old-fashioned glass. It isn't the best for experiencing the aromas with the wide-open rim, but that's OK. This is more about getting acclimated and used to drinking bourbon.
Straight or Neat
Straight or neat is the best way to enjoy bourbon and let all the subtle intricacies of the aromas and flavors truly come together. While often used interchangeably, there's a subtle difference between neat and straight. Neat means that you don't add any water or ice. It's just room-temperature bourbon served from a glass. On the other hand, straight involves placing the bourbon in a glass with ice, shaking it or stirring it to cool it, and then straining it into a glass to serve. True bourbon connoisseurs understand this is the best way to drink bourbon.
Believe it or not, the glass you choose makes a more significant difference than you might think. The best glass to enjoy all the flavors and aromas of bourbon is called a Glencairn glass, a tulip-shaped glass that funnels the aromas to your nose, allowing a full flavor experience. Any type of tulip-shaped glass will also work well, and there's nothing wrong with using a tumbler.
With a Few Drops of Water
It's common practice to start with bourbon neat or straight, and then add just a couple of drops of water. The idea is that with many of the flavors and aromas being oil-based, a bit of water will separate the flavors and open up the bourbon. While it does dilute some, it can make the experience better by allowing all the flavors and aromas to come through.
Add water slowly, literally one drop at a time, and take a sip after each drop until you find the sweet spot. Again, the best glass is the Glencairn, which will serve to funnel these newly released aromas to your nose and works well to swirl the bourbon, fully integrating the water and releasing the flavors and aromas.
Drinking Technique — Look and Smell
If you choose to go the neat/straight route or with a few drops of water, there are some additional techniques to maximize your drinking experience. First, hold it up to the light and look at the color, which will range from a light golden color to a dark caramel color. The darker the bourbon, the more it's been aged.
Swirl the bourbon around in the glass and see if it coats the inside of the glass, known as the legs. Some bourbons have a higher oil content and have legs that will cling to the glass more than others.
Next, you want to smell it, but don't breathe through your nose. Rather open your mouth a bit and breathe through your mouth, allowing you to pick up the more subtle aromas without your nose being overwhelmed by the alcohol vapors. If you read the tasting notes, you'll notice a variety of scents listed. This is an excellent way to sophisticate your nose and see if you can pick them out when you smell the bourbon.
Drinking Technique — Taste the Bourbon
The way to examine the bourbon palate is to do what is called a Kentucky Chew. Take a little sip of the bourbon, let it swirl around in your mouth and on your tongue, and finally smack your lips a little. Booker Noe, the late master distiller for Jim Beam, perfected this best way to explore all the flavors. As you swallow the bourbon, you'll feel it warm you as it goes down; this is referred to as a Kentucky Hug.
Your assessment of the bourbon should come around the third sip or so, especially if you've been eating or drinking something else flavorful. Also, after you swallow the bourbon, notice any different flavors that come through, known as the finish. Most bourbons will have a different flavor on the finish versus the initial sip.
If you're interested in giving bourbon a try, sample all of these methods and see what works best for you. You might be more comfortable starting with cocktails, then perhaps sampling on the rocks before going straight/neat or with a few drops of water. Try many types of bourbons and others within each type. You'll soon find what you enjoy most and will be firmly ensconced in the world of bourbon.