Let’s state the obvious: technically there’s no wrong way for drinking bourbon. And boy have people been drinking their favorite brown spirit. According to the Whiskey & Bourbon Distilleries Industry in the US Market Research Report from IBISWorld, whiskey experienced considerable growth in the U.S. between 2014–2019, expanding 5.3% during the five year period, and it is forecasted that this trend will continue over the next five years. Within the larger dark spirits industry, whiskey accounts for 80.2% of the total market, with bourbon and American whiskey leading in popularity. So, if you’re looking to dabble and jump on the bourbon bandwagon where do you begin? These rules for drinking bourbon properly are a great starting point.
Decode the label
Not all bourbon is created equal (even though how it’s made is relatively similar). For that reason, you want to become an expert at reading the labels so you can start to distinguish what you’re drinking. Beau Williams, owner of the famous Kansas City bourbon bar, Julep, tells Liquor.com “bourbon is a very broad category” and knowing the wording can help decipher the different types. For example, you want to look for a label that says straight bourbon.
“Straight is what you want to look for first and foremost when you’re searching the shelves,” he says. “It means they’re not adding anything to or adulterating the product, so you’re getting the real deal.” Follow that up with looking for an age statement, which isn’t always included. By law, straight bourbon has to be aged for at least two years.
Choose the right glass
Believe it or not, choosing the right glass can be an important factor for drinking bourbon. The Glencairn glass is an industry staple, usually reserved for Scotch whisky. Because of the curved shape, it brings out the natural aromas of the spirit. “Aroma is a huge part of your bourbon experience,” Williams notes. “You need a glass that lets you capture the aroma—caramel-y, nutty, etc.—to get you excited and cue up the rest of your senses.” If you don’t have a Glencairn glass, look for one that has a broad base and tapered top. The tapered opening allows aromas to funnel upward.
Get water involved
As Williams puts it, water is not a dealbreaker whatsoever. Not only is water a key ingredient in how whiskey is made, adding a drop or two in your glass actually helps to “open up” the taste of the bourbon and can increase the boldness of the flavor. Williams says when you have an uncut, unfiltered, barrel-strength whiskey, it will benefit from some dilution. “It takes off the heat and spice notes and lets the sweetness shine through.”
Upgrade your ice
Did you know that small, watery pieces of ice can dilute your spirit too quickly? Because bourbon is meant to be savored, you want to take your time with drinking it. Therefore, ice that melts quickly can ruin the overall experience. Instead, look into purchasing a silicone mold so you can freeze sizable chunks of water that will chill the drink but not melt too fast.
Try a cocktail recipe
If drinking bourbon on its own is too far of a jump for a beginner, think about trying it as a cocktail instead. For example, an Old Fashioned is the perfect beginner whiskey cocktail because the sugar and bitters can help bridge the flavor profiles and make it easier to drink. When looking for the right cocktail recipe, Williams says you want to find one that accentuates the bourbon rather than masks its true taste.
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