What Does Bourbon Taste Like?

Words By Brad Neathery

What is your go-to drink at the bar? Do you reach immediately for a beer? Or are you always down for a glass of red wine? Or maybe you choose something classic like a Martini?

Whatever your go-to is, a pretty small percentage of people choose bourbon, even though this drink is complex and delicious. 

Those who have never tried bourbon before might be a bit nervous that they won’t enjoy it. But bourbon is no more offensive than any other spirit; in fact, it packs even more flavor into a small serving than many other drinks.

But what does bourbon taste like, exactly? Here is a quick overview for new drinkers of bourbon to understand what bourbon tastes like before diving in headfirst.

What Is Bourbon?

Before we get too deep into the flavors of a good bourbon whiskey (and believe us, there are some deep flavors in good bourbon), it will help to understand what exactly bourbon is. 

Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey made in the United States. It was originally produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky, though now it can be made anywhere in the U.S.  

Bourbon is hard liquor, meaning it has an ABV of at least 40% at bottling. Bourbon is made from a mixture of corn, wheat, barley, and rye but must contain at least 51% corn. 

Bourbon is also an aged spirit and must be aged for at least two years in new American charred oak barrels before bottling. This liquor is also caramel brown in color and can be anywhere from light amber to dark oaky brown.

What Are The Legal Requirements To Be A Bourbon?

The explanation can get a little confusing, so we wanted to give you a breakdown of the requirements of bourbon whiskey.

  1. Made in the United States: The first legal requirement for bourbon is that it must be made in the United States. To be a Kentucky bourbon, it must be made in Kentucky
  2. 51% Corn Mash Bill: All bourbon whiskies are made with a mash bill of 51% corn or more, with the rest made of a combination of wheat, barley, and rye. 
  3. Aged for 2 Years in New Charred American Oak Barrels: All bourbons are aged for a minimum of two years in new wooden barrels made from American oak. 
  4. Minimum 40% ABV: All bourbons must be bottled at no less than 40% ABV.

What Does Bourbon Taste Like

Now that you know the basic things that make a bourbon a bourbon, we can dive into the taste factors. Bourbon has many different flavor components, and these vary between distillers and different recipes. However, there are a few consistent characteristics you can expect from bourbon.

The most common notes in bourbon are caramel, vanilla, and oak. Surprisingly, whiskey is actually one of the more “sweet” tasting liquors, despite not containing added sugars. 

How Does Bourbon Get Its Flavor?

Bourbon, like other spirits like vodka, is a distilled beverage, so why does one have so many flavor notes, and the other is considered “neutral”? 

It all comes down to two crucial elements — the mash and the aging process.

How Does Mash Impact Bourbon Flavor?

The first major component that impacts bourbon flavor is the mash bill. The mash bill denotes what percentage of different grains are fermented together to make the whiskey.

The mash bill is the main element of the bourbon, and just like different grapes can influence the flavors of wine, the different mash bill combinations can impact the bourbon’s flavor for a bolder or sweeter taste.

These combinations are limited because all bourbons must use a mash bill of at least 51% corn to still be considered a bourbon. This means that corn, with its sweet, mellow, and light flavor profile, is always the main ingredient. 

Distillers do get some room to play with flavor in the mash bill, as the other 49% is unregulated. Distillers can use any amount of corn, wheat, rye, or barley to make up the rest of the mash. Depending on which are used, the bourbon can become more spicy,  earthy, malty, sweet, or mellow.

How Does Aging Impact Bourbon Flavor?

The other aspect of making bourbon that impacts flavor is the aging process. All bourbons must be aged for at least two years in freshly charred oak barrels. Whiskey, or any other spirit, starts out clear. This aging process is where most of the flavor and all of the color of the liquor comes from.

This is why vodka, which is unaged, is clear, while whiskey is dark. Other spirits, such as tequila, can range from clear to brown depending on the length of aging. But how exactly does aging whiskey in a barrel give it color and flavor?

Wood expands and contracts with the environmental changes in temperature and humidity. Over the next two years, the wooden barrel ends up breathing the whiskey in and out, imbuing it with the flavors and colors present in the wood. This makes the whiskey darker and can give it notes of vanilla, 

While bourbon must be aged in oak for two years, you still get variation between distillers depending on where they source their oak from and the level of fire they expose their barrels to.

What Is Finished Whiskey?

We know what you are thinking: are there any other ways to impact the flavor of whiskey before it gets bottled? The answer is a resounding yes.

Finished whiskey is whiskey that has been aged a second time in another barrel after the American oak barrel. This imparts more flavor notes to the whiskey, such as vanilla, honey, tobacco, or fruit. At Oak & Eden, we have pioneered a new way to finish whiskey — not in a second barrel, but in the bottle.

We use our patented spires, spiral-cut pieces of wood that have been carefully selected and toasted, to add the maximal flavor notes to our whiskey blends. 

Our Oak & Eden Bourbon Whiskey contains an American oak spire, charred to a medium toast level to bring in the perfect layering of vanilla and caramel while your whiskey sits in its bottle.

What Goes Well With Bourbon?

Now that you know the basic flavors of bourbon, it’s time you take a sip and mix your own bourbon cocktails. The good news is that many things go well with bourbon whiskey.

The Whiskey sour is a classic cocktail that combines bourbon whiskey with lemon juice, simple syrup, and sometimes an egg white for added froth. Enjoy it freshly shaken and poured over ice for a twist of sweet and sour. The vanilla and caramel notes of the whiskey mix nicely with the citrus to give you the perfect sipper.

Whiskey is also known to go well in simple mixers like sodas, particularly cola. In fact, whiskey and Coke is an incredibly popular choice at most bars, as is the whiskey and ginger ale. Make one for your own with Oak & Eden’s Bourbon & Spire for a deeply satisfying and smooth drink with sweet, tangy notes.

The Taste of Bourbon: Takeaways

Trying bourbon for the first time can be a bit scary, but it’s also exciting. Enjoying this spirit can open up a whole new world of flavors to you, and bourbon has one of the most approachable flavor profiles of any hard liquor.

Bourbon tastes strongly of vanilla, caramel, and oak, and depending on what option you choose, you’ll find that some flavor notes are stronger than others. These flavors are imparted through the mash bill and the aging process of the whiskey, with different practices resulting in slightly different and varied flavors.

These flavors are a great compliment to many other flavors, including citrus and dark sodas. But you can also enjoy bourbon whiskey straight or in a simple Old Fashioned.

If you are looking for a great bourbon to try, our Oak & Eden Bourbon Whiskey is one of the best, with each unique bottle finishing giving additional flavors and nuance to every bottle. Give it a try, and you won't be disappointed.



What a Whiskey's Age Statement Really Means | Men's Journal

What Is Whiskey? | The Spruce Eats

What is bourbon? And how is it different from other whiskies? | World Whisky Day

Words By Brad Neathery