Bourbon is an American classic–grown and brewed completely in the U.S. – and is typically associated with the American South. It was the drink of choice among many artists, writers, and musicians like Dorothy Parker, Frank Sinatra, William Faulker, and John Wayne.
But, this isn’t your grandfather’s drink anymore. Bourbon has quickly experienced a revival of sorts, becoming a favorite among discerning Millennials who have sparked a new era of restaurants and bourbon-specific bars that are catering to a younger clientele. This means new and interesting ways to enjoy this delicious, golden spirit.
If you’ve never tried bourbon, you might be curious as to how you should drink it. This article will show you the various and most creative ways to drink bourbon so you too can enjoy the rich, oakiness that this American classic will bring to your palate.
Different Ways to Drink Bourbon-Know Your Drink
Before we delve into the different ways to drink bourbon, I wanted to start with some bourbon basics. Knowing your drink before you even start worrying about how to drink it will set you up for delicious success.
Bourbon comes from its namesake city of Bourbon, Kentucky. While production of this local specialty began in the 1700s, it wasn’t until the 1860’s that it became well-known. Bourbon distillers would produce the bourbon in Kentucky then ship it out, down the mighty Mississippi River to Louisiana to…you guessed it…Bourbon Street.
While tradition states that bourbon should be made in Old Bourbon County, the law allows for bourbon to be made anywhere in the U.S. I will say that the climate of Kentucky and its limestone water makes for a different taste than the bourbons outside of the area. If at all possible, stick with Kentucky bourbons, which are easy to spot because most non-Kentucky bourbon makers won’t even use the word “bourbon” on their labeling.
What is Bourbon?
For a whiskey to be considered a bourbon, it must be American-made and made from at least 51% corn with the remaining 49% of the mash being composed of any other grains–typically rye, wheat, and/or malted barley. It also must follow these legal parameters:
- Aged in new charred, American Oak barrels (There is no requirement as to how long it must be aged, but straight bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years)
- Distilled to no more than 80% alcohol-by-volume (ABV)
- When placed in the barrel it can be no more than 62.5% ABV
- When bottled, it must be a minimum of 40% ABV
Types of Bourbon
Bourbon is at least 51% corn mash with the remaining percentage consisting of other grains, which are usually rye, wheat, and/or malted barley. The type of bourbon they become will depend on the amount of each grain used or the time spent aging.
The subcategories of bourbon include:
- Straight bourbon – Aged a minimum of two years and has no added colorings or flavors.
- High rye bourbon – Bold and spicy, made of more than 10% rye.
- High corn bourbon – Very sweet compared to other bourbon, contains more than 51% corn.
- Wheated bourbon – Softer with flavors of caramel and vanilla, contains wheat instead of rye (a combination of wheat, corn, and barley).
- Blended bourbon – Must be at least 51% straight bourbon but can have additional spirits, colors and flavors added.
Getting Ready to Drink Your Bourbon
I bet you didn’t know that drinking bourbon could be so complex! But, honestly, once you understand why you need to do some of these things, you’ll see why you should take it slow with your bourbon.
Before you even take one sip, make sure you have the correct glassware. No, you don’t need “bourbon-specific” glasses, but different shapes will enhance your bourbon drinking experience. The best glass for drinking bourbon is something with a wide mouth to allow you to smell your drink such as a Glencairn Glass.
You can also choose a glass with a narrower top, but a wider base that will funnel the aromas up towards your nose. A brandy snifter can also work if you are without the above-mentioned glasses.
One thing to note, a shot glass is not ideal for bourbon. You just aren’t going to get the same experience as using a specialized bourbon glass.
Now you are ready to pour. Once you’ve poured your bourbon into your glass, let it sit and then swirl it to bloom it. The aromas will open up and give you the full experience that the distiller intended. Place your nose over the edge of the glass and slightly open your lips to inhale the scent, as well as get a note of the tastes you will be experiencing.
You will also want to take note of the color of your bourbon. If it is clear, you have a bourbon only aged at about a year. The darker the bourbon, the longer it has been aged. Notice as you swirl the glass if there are drips going down the side of the glass–these are called “legs” and the more “legs” you see, the higher the alcohol content.
Finally, it’s time to taste! Sip a little of the bourbon, allowing it to roll across your tongue and linger in your mouth before you swallow, breathing out through your nose and mouth to allow you to access all the flavors. Don’t bother taking “shots” and just guzzling. Bourbon is not meant to be consumed like a cheap, swill beer!
The Different Ways To Drink Bourbon
Bourbon drinkers will each have a way they most enjoy drinking their bourbon. There is no “right” or “wrong” way, other than “shots”. The most common ways that bourbon connoisseurs will drink bourbon include:
Drinking bourbon “neat” means in a glass with nothing added. This is the method that bourbon purists prefer as it ensures you get the full flavor that the distiller intended. You may include a few drops of water, which won’t dilute the drink, but instead will open up the aromas.
On The Rocks
If you’re not a fan of room-temperature drinks, you can absolutely serve bourbon over ice, or “on the rocks”. It will dilute the bourbon a bit, but not enough that it ruins the experience. I would recommend you stick with one or two cubes, an ice ball, or even one of the newer items on the market–whiskey stones.
I haven’t found that whiskey stones are really that great, they don’t seem to chill the bourbon as much as I would like and if you pick a sub-par quality stone you run the risk of having a taste from the stones added to your drink.
In A Cocktail
There are two quintessential cocktails that utilize bourbon as the spirit of choice.
First, is the Manhattan cocktail…
The Manhattan is made with a top-quality bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters and is typically served in a martini glass.
The second drink is the Mint Julep. This is THE drink of the Kentucky Derby and it pays homage to Kentucky’s love of its bourbon. A Mint Julep is a simple drink, made of bourbon, water, sugar, and spearmint but still packs a punch that many don’t expect the first time they taste it.
Final Thoughts on The Different Ways to Drink Bourbon
Drinking bourbon can seem like a complex process, but it really doesn’t need to be. This American spirit is meant to be enjoyed, savored even. So, when it comes to deciding on which of the Different Ways to Drink Bourbon you’ll try out, my recommendation would be to choose a brand of bourbon that really suits your fancy and then figure out the best drinking experience is FOR YOU.
Everyone is different, just like every bourbon is different. And each of us will enjoy our bourbon differently, so find a great brand, get a glass that you like, maybe recruit a friend or two, and let that liquid gold enhance your next enjoyable evening.