How To Drink Bourbon: Ultimate Beginners Guide
Every year, bourbon becomes increasingly more popular among new drinkers. It’s showing up with greater frequency on cocktail menus worldwide, as well as an option to drink on its own.
This is partly because it often has a less jarring flavor compared to a Scotch or Rye (if you’re not used to them, that is), but also because of its downright tasty flavor profile. With strong hints of vanilla, caramel, and a sweet yet smokey oak undertone, bourbon is the perfect introduction to whiskey.
Maybe the thought of becoming a whiskey connoisseur seems a bit much. Nonetheless, choosing to brush up on your whiskey knowledge before heading to the bar with some friends is invaluable. With more than 1,500 distilleries producing bourbon across America, now more than ever is a great time to learn what this spirit is and how to drink bourbon.
So, What Is Bourbon?
While the best way to taste bourbon is to dive in headfirst and try it, a little education before that first sip will only enhance your experience.
Let's be honest: Whiskey labels can get a little confusing at times if you’re not used to all the terms they use. That’s why we’ve organized the different types of bourbon and flavor profiles they tend to offer here. This way, you’ll know a thing or two before splashing out on a new bottle of bourbon.
Single Barrel Bourbon
Single barrel bourbon means the bottle consists of whiskey produced in only one barrel. These bottles tend to be more expensive because of their rareness. No two bottles will ever taste quite the same.
Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This bourbon moniker refers to a bourbon that aged for at least two years and does not contain added colors or flavors.
Blended Bourbon Whiskey
To be considered bourbon, a whiskey must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn. In addition to the 51%, blended bourbon whiskeys contain a mixture of other grains like rye, wheat, or barley. Unlike single barrel bourbon, it’s coming from multiple barrels as well.
Bottled in Bond
Some whiskey labels will contain this signifier. This refers to a set of legal regulations outlined in the United States government’s Standards of Identity Distilled Spirits.
In order for bourbon to be labeled with bonded or bottled in bond, it must adhere to these regulations:
- The product of one distillation season and one distillery
- It must have been stored in a federally bonded warehouse under US supervision for at least four years
- Bottled at 100 proof
- The label must identify where it was distilled
While it can be fun to wander aimlessly into the unknown world of bourbon, having at least a general understanding of the different flavor profiles will help unlock this savory drink.
Writer and whiskey enthusiast Fred Minnick, in his book Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker, breaks the drink into four distinct flavor categories.
This refers to a younger tasting bourbon with lots of flavor from the grains.
This refers to a spicy or nutty-tasting bourbon.
These bourbons offer more sweetness, often attributed to the type of charred oak.
These bourbons are spicier, tending to have rye-heavy mash bills.
While it can be alluring to want to rope certain bourbons into one flavor profile, whiskey is known for its ability to defy one category of flavoring. In fact, one drink of whiskey can have many interpretations. Where one person tastes caramel, another might be picking up on smokiness. You might take a sip and notice several different flavors at once — there really are no wrong answers.
Remember, these are just categories, and to pin one whiskey to one category can prove quite difficult. For example, at Oak & Eden, where we are experimenting with the inventiveness of in-bottle finishing, our bourbons offer a variety of flavors.
For a broad flavor profile that encompasses many different flavor notes like orange peel, vanilla, cloves, and caramel, try our 4 Grain & Spire. If you’re looking for a sip on the sweeter side, perhaps you’d be more interested in our medium toasted Bourbon & Spire, a flavorful bourbon with naturally occurring hints of vanilla & coconut botanicals.
How To Nose Whiskey
One of the best parts about drinking whiskey happens before you ever touch the liquid to your lips. You smell it! Or, as we like to say, you nose it.
Here is a comprehensive guide to help you successfully nose whiskey so you can enjoy your bourbon to the fullest.
Give the Bourbon a Whirl
Before bringing the glass to the nostril, make sure to give the glass a good swirl. Do not swirl too hard, as you will disturb the aromas. Just give it a gentle swirl, allowing the whiskey to breathe.
Take a Whiff of the Bourbon
First, move the glass about an inch away from your nose. As you softly smell, move the glass away so as to not burn the nostrils. As you move the glass away, gently breathe in through the nose.
What Do You Smell?
The best part about drinking bourbon is trying to decipher what it is you actually smell! Can you smell the corn? Does the aroma smell like charred oak? Or vanilla? Perhaps it’s something entirely different — it’s up to you to figure it out.
Once you smell or taste your bourbon, it does not matter what you smell or taste. This is your interpretation of the drink, so it’s all about what you’re experiencing. Take your time, and most importantly, enjoy!
How Can You Drink Bourbon?
Now that we have explored the different types of bourbons, the varying characterizing flavor profiles, and which Oak & Eden bourbons are a must-try, it is time to delve deeper into actually enjoying this wonderful spirit.
Here are our favorite ways to drink bourbon.
Drinking Bourbon Neat
Drinking bourbon neat is how the purists usually choose to drink their bourbon. Drinking a spirit “neat” means that the drink will be served with no ice or additives. As is. No frills, just bourbon. If you wish to really taste the liquor in its purest form, ask for bourbon neat.
Once you get your bourbon, try not to drink the entire glass in one swig. Instead, bourbon should be sipped slowly and savored, especially when served neat. This gives you the chance to really explore all the different smells and flavors present in your spirit.
On the Rocks
If drinking bourbon neat seems a bit intense, perhaps you prefer drinking bourbon on the rocks — aka with ice. Bourbon on the rocks means you’ll still get all the flavor notes of your bourbon without any additions besides a bit of melted water from the ice.
As you let the drink sit, the ice will slowly melt, diluting the bourbon, and weakening the bite of the spirit. Not only will the water lessen the intense flavor profile for new drinkers, but a colder drink does tend to go down a bit easier.
Bourbon Cocktail Ideas
Afraid bourbon neat or on the rocks might be too strong, and you want to ease yourself in? We have your back. In addition to the aromatic flavor profiles of straight bourbon, many wonderful mixed drinks also use bourbon.
First-time whiskey drinkers can rejoice in the fact that bourbon is one of the easiest spirits to mix with! Try your hand at these simple yet delicious bourbon cocktails the next time you are getting your drink on.
The Bourbon Sour
The whiskey sour is a favorite among whiskey drinkers who enjoy a balanced cocktail that highlights the dark liquor. Using bourbon in this already sweet cocktail alongside lemon juice and simple syrup is perfect for beginner drinkers.
The sweeter profile of the bourbon will make the drink a bit smoother than it might be with another whiskey. You can also use egg whites to help add a beautiful froth to the drink.
This classic whiskey drink is a cross between the whiskey sour and the mint julep. This drink gets its name from muddling mint with sugar and lemon.
The ingredients are almost identical to the bourbon sour with the addition of mint. If you prefer your drinks extra cold, opt for the bourbon whiskey smash, as it is made with plenty of ice!
Bourbon Old Fashioned
The old-fashioned is a classic whiskey cocktail, dating all the way back to 1806. As one of the first cocktails we have on record, this whiskey drink is made with sugar, bitters, water, and any whiskey. Try with bourbon for added sweetness.
Take your time enjoying this delicate cocktail filled with subtlety. Not only will the smell help to enhance this wonderful drink, but it will also look beautiful on any tabletop bar, thanks to the delicate addition of the orange peel.
Give Bourbon a Try
Whether you’re a hardcore whiskey lover or you’re just beginning to experiment with the spirit, bourbon is one option worth having in your home bar. There are so many ways to enjoy this complex spirit, so get to trying it today.