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Bourbon for Beginners

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Bourbon for Beginners

If there’s a class that I could teach in my sleep it would be Drinking Bourbon for Beginners. As someone converting cocktail drinkers to whiskey lovers every day, it’s a passion of mine. Around any major holiday, I get emails and messages from non-whiskey drinkers asking for help selecting a bourbon or answering basic questions. It looks mysterious and sexy – all those beautiful, confident people with their noses tucked in curvy (Glencairn) glasses, taking tiny sips and talking about hints of toffee, citrus, or dried cherry.  It looks intimidating.

But at its most basic, learning how to drink bourbon just takes a little bit of curiosity and a sense of adventure. And even if you don’t become a whiskey fanatic like me, you’ll be able to hold your own in the many bourbon and whiskey events popular online and (eventually) in person (again).

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What is Bourbon?

Bourbon flight of single barrel selections in small shot glasses
Flight of Bourbons at a Tasting

Let’s start with a basic premise: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Bourbon is liquid sunshine. It’s the distilled spirit born of grain fermented with yeast, cooked with care, distilled to perfection, and aged to maturity in a new charred oak barrel. But to be called bourbon, it has to meet very specific requirements set down by law.

Bourbon is a subset of a wider category called whiskey. That wider category includes other categories such as Scotch, Japanese Whisky, Irish Whisky, Canadian Whisky, and even other American whiskeys like rye whiskey.

But for it to be bourbon, the following must be true:

  • It must be distilled and aged in the US.
  • The mash bill (grain recipe) must be at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon can be distilled no higher than 160 proof off the still.
  • It can go into the barrel no higher than 125 proof.
  • Bourbon must be aged in a new, charred, oak container.
  • It can have nothing added to it except water. No flavoring, no coloring, nothing.
  • Bourbon must be bottled at 80 proof or higher.

Given those restrictions, you might think all bourbon would taste the same, but bourbon is one of the most varied spirits in the world. Factors like the mash bill, the proof at which the spirit goes into the barrel, how the barrel’s prepared, how long it’s aged, what yeast was used, the type of still used to make it, and how it’s batched create vastly different flavors in bourbon.

It’s magical if you ask me. It also makes it a fantastic cocktail ingredient. It’s like cooking with wines, different varietals of wine have different culinary uses. The same is true of bourbon in cocktails.

If you need a cocktail while we’re talking bourbon, grab the recipe for my favorite Old Fashioned here

What Does Bourbon Taste Like?

flight of willett bourbon in glencairns
Flight of bourbons at a tasting

Bourbon tastes like love on the inside. Just kidding. Many people say that bourbon tastes like vanilla, caramel, oak, or dried fruit. To bourbon beginners, before you’re used to it, it likely tastes like fire. 

Here’s why: distilleries must bottle bourbon at 80 proof (minimum)- that’s 40 percent alcohol. If you’re not used to sipping and tasting alcohol neat it’s a lot of proof to take in a sip. The strongest cocktails are usually around 30%, and most cocktails find a sweet spot between 18-25%. Which means switching to 40% alcohol feels like a shock to your mouth and throat.

But, once you’re used to sipping and nosing at that 80 proof level, you smell and taste citrus, cherry, nut, dried fruit, oak, char, florals, grains, spices, and more. Each bourbon tastes different. The different smells and tastes you get from bourbons depend on the grains used to make it, the yeast used to ferment it, how it was distilled, how much time it spent in the barrel, where the barrel was, how it was batched, and proofed down to create the bourbon.  

Bourbons also feel different in the mouth. Some will taste thin, others creamy, still others might feel slightly oily.  

How do you get there? Let’s break down how to taste bourbon. 

How To Taste Bourbon (the Kentucky Chew)

Two bourbon samples in tasting glasses as a toast
Bourbon Tasting with a Best Friend

Learning bourbon for beginners means that we need to know how to taste a bourbon.

There are four steps to tasting a bourbon. Fred Noe and Jim Beam Distillery popularized the “Kentucky Chew.” The most popular glasses to sip bourbon from are Glencairn glasses, but at tastings and liquor stores you’ll likely be sipping out of a small shot glass. Glencairns were designed for tasting Scotch and are excellent for tasting bourbon, but the same technique applies if you’re tasting from a shot glass.

1. Nose the bourbon

Take the bourbon and waft it gently under your nose. Start a few inches away and edge closer until you get a good whiff of the bourbon. It will smell sweet, full of vanilla and caramel. You might smell oak, fruit or spice.

Open your mouth just a bit and inhale again. Sometimes you’ll get better notes with your mouth open as the aromas enter the palate and the nose at the same time.

Take your time here – most of our sense of taste comes from smell, so what you smell drives the flavors you’ll perceive. Think about the categories you smell, then think about specific smells.

There are no wrong answers here. If it smells like Nana’s basement or Aunt Edna’s rose lotion, you’re making leaps between smells and memory. Perhaps you’re getting earthy notes or floral notes from it. 

2. Take a tiny sip of the bourbon

Sip just a bit of the bourbon. This first sip isn’t to taste the bourbon, it’s to get the burn of your first whiskey out of the way. It’ll taste a little harsh. Even those of us who love whiskey get a little burn on the first taste. 

Take that sip and swallow, and know that you’re not evaluating right now. Just getting your palate ready.

3. Take a regular sip of the bourbon, swirl, and chew

Now you want to take a true sip of the bourbon, not a huge swallow, but a little larger sip and roll it around the mouth. Let it coat the mouth, and make a little chewing motion to move it around the entire palate. 

In this step, you’re getting bourbon on all the surfaces in your mouth gently (it’s not mouthwash), and that helps you identify flavors because different areas of the mouth hold specific flavor receptors. It also lets you evaluate the mouthfeel of the bourbon

4. Swallow and exhale through your mouth

Swallow the whiskey (and some suggest smacking your lips a time our two) and feel the finish. The finish is the sensation of the whiskey after your swallow. It’s the flavor of the whiskey in the mouth afterwards, the aromas and taste you get after the whiskey has been swallowed.

Exhaling through the mouth lets the aroma particles move past the olfactory bulb again, and dispells the alcohol that built up in the mouth as you tasted it. 

Now evaluate the taste, the finish and the mouthfeel. What tastes and flavors did you experience? Was the mouthfeel thin, creamy or oily? Was it concentrated in any one place? How long was the finish? Were there flavors associated with the finish? Was it pleasant or did it have too much burn?

And that’s how you taste bourbon. But sometimes there’s a problem.

How to Taste Bourbon If It’s Too Strong (And Burns Too Much)

Bourbon on ice, two glasses

The easiest thing to do is add a small measure of water. Often when the production teams are batching bourbon for an expression they taste the bourbon at 20% or 30% alcohol. The addition of water sweetens the spirit and makes it easier to evaluate. 

Take your sample and add a small bit of water, swirl it around in the glass and try again. Perhaps your sweet spot for tasting bourbon is below 80 proof. You might need to add water a few times to get the sample to a proof level that works for you. 

Another method is to have a small sip of water in your mouth before you take a sip of the bourbon. I learned this method at Buffalo Trace Distillery as Freddie Johnson, tour guide extraordinaire and Bourbon Hall of Fame member taught a room full of bourbon women how to sip their way through bourbons.

If you are at a bourbon distillery, they will offer you water to add to your glass. If the bourbon is too strong for you, add water. Remember, the people who make the bourbon usually evaluate it at a much lower proof than how it’s bottled. So if you prefer those lower proofs, maybe that means you have a future in the industry.

How to Drink Bourbon

bourbons, orange, bitters, cherries laid out for cocktail class
Bourbon Cocktail Class

The short answer to this question is however you like it. Bourbon lovers don’t really care if you have a Pappy in your glass or value bourbon. A true bourbon lover is just happy to have someone to share a pour with. 

Some bourbon lovers prefer their pours neat, others with a splash of water. Some prefer bourbon over ice and others prefer cocktails. Your palate and your preference is your own. As long as you enjoy what you have in hand, you’re giving the creators what they wish for – someone to enjoy and appreciate the spirits they make.

One of the things I love most about bourbon, and especially bourbon women, is that it’s not a competition to see who can handle the highest proof or the oldest bourbon. It’s about asking a bourbon friend what they think of the bourbon or bourbon cocktail they have in hand. 

Drinking Bourbon with Fun Enthusiasts

When I’m around people who want to compete with the most expensive or rarest bourbon they’ve had, I’m not sure they understand bourbon culture. Sure it’s nice to try those things, but I’d rather share an experience that we can both have. I’ll open up a single barrel or share a favorite daily drinker. Or pull out some fun bottom-shelf bourbons for comparisons.

True bourbon enthusiasts understand that behind every bottle is years of talent crafting the distillate, aging it, selecting barrels and batching it, bottling it and sharing it with the public. It takes at least four years for most bourbons to make it to market, and many wait longer. So bourbon makers want you to enjoy it. 

You don’t have to drink bourbon neat or even on the rocks to consider yourself a bourbon drinker. If you have an open mind about bourbon and a willingness to try a new bourbon cocktail or a new pour on the rocks (or neat) then you’re already part of the family.

I started drinking bourbon neat and have gravitated towards bourbon cocktails because of the challenge and complexity they present. Others started with cocktails and moved to rocks or neat. Whether you love your bourbon neat, on the rocks on in a cocktail, as long as you’re drinking bourbon, you can call yourself a bourbon lover. 

Now that you know how to taste bourbon, and how to drink it, let’s talk about why bourbon drinkers seem to talk about bourbon non-stop.

Why Do Bourbon Enthusiasts Talk about It All the Time?

bourbon glencairn on a wood surface with Home is where the bourbon is on it.
Home is Where the Bourbon Is

When you start to learn how to drink bourbon it feels like everyone wants to talk your ear off about it. Bourbon lovers are a funny crowd. We love our bourbon, but we love to talk about it and learn about it even more. 

It’s Important to American History

Once I started reading about bourbon I realized that the spirits industry played a pivotal role at key points in our history. From the transformation of excess grains into easily transportable whiskey in the early history of the country, to the Whiskey Rebellion and the first American taxes, to Prohibition, mobsters and the role of the spirits industry during the war efforts in both the world wars, whiskey has always been central to the country in one way or another.

But bourbon nerds are like any other group of enthusiasts, we love to gather in numbers and talk about our obsession. We’ve often got a pour in our hand while discussing it which makes learning even more fun.

Everyone’s Experience is Right

Because every bourbon drinker’s palate is different, it’s fun to argue flavors and aromas coming from a bourbon, or what bourbon goes best with a particular food. Give four people flights of 3 bourbons (a flight is where drinkers sample 3 to 4 types of bourbon to compare and contrast the spirits, from flavor to color to nose) and you’ll have four different answers on the best bourbon of the selection. 

And that’s why bourbon enthusiasts have so much fun – in the process of learning about bourbon we get to experience it. No answer to the question “What do you like best?” is ever wrong.

But, to be able to hold your own with a set of bourbon drinkers you may need a short primer to learn about bourbon and how it’s made. 

How is Bourbon Made

James E Pepper Copper column still with mash in the windows
Pepper Distilling Copper Column Still

If you ever get the chance to go to a distillery, please do. Even if it’s not a whiskey distillery, the process of creating a distilled spirit is fascinating to see and learn about. Knowing the effort that goes into the creation of bourbon helps drinkers appreciate that amber liquid in the glass. So let’s talk about how bourbon is made.

The creation of a distilled spirit has many commonalities across vodka, gin, whiskies and rum.

Cooking and Fermenting

At its most basic, a cooked porridge (in whiskey we use grains, in rum, sugar cane or molasses) has yeast added to it. The yeast converts the sugars into alcohol. Fun fact: the yeast ingests the carbohydrates and excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Yes. I did just say that. It poops alcohol. As yeast does this in a bourbon distillery, it fills the fermentation floor with this glorious, yeasty, bread-like smell.

Distillation

Once the yeast finishes consuming the carbohydrates, they die off, and the cooked mash flows to the still. At this point, it’s referred to as distiller’s beer and generally has a low alcohol volume of 8-9%.

In the still, the mash is heated so that the alcohol evaporates and rises to the top of the still where it’s then cooled down and turned into a liquid again. Distilleries often use a doubler to increase the alcohol by volume. 

As the liquid comes off the still, the still operator separates it into three “cuts” – the heads, the hearts, and the tails. The heads, the first vapors to distill off the distiller’s beer, contain harsh and toxic chemicals not meant for human consumption. Sometimes bourbon companies use the cuts for cleaning or disposal of them in environmentally safe ways.

By monitoring the alcohol’s proof and its aroma, the distillers will make a cut once they reach the “hearts” of the distillation – this is the liquid gold with the flavor and makeup the distillers want to place in their barrels. 

They continue to monitor proof, aroma, and flavor to find the cut-off point of the hearts and the start of the tails. The tails are earthy, vegetal, and bitter, and not flavors they want to be added to their spirits.

The final step: distillers place the clear spirit or distillate in new, charred, oak containers for aging. 

What Happens in a Bourbon Barrel?

bourbons lined up on the floor of a bourbon rickhouse
Inside a rickhouse (bourbon warehouse)

Some whiskey experts estimate that up to 80% of the flavor of bourbon comes from the barrel. There’s no minimum to the amount of time bourbon has to spend in the barrel. It could be dumped in a charred oak bucket and bottled and legally be called whiskey.

But it wouldn’t taste very good.

Barrels are both toasted – heated to a moderate degree for a certain amount of time to start to break down some of the lignins in the wood which become vanillin (giving you that wonderful vanilla flavor) – and charred. During the charring process, the interior of the barrel is burned at a particular temperature and for a certain amount of time to give the barrel a char level. The heavier the char, the more pronounced some whiskey flavors are.

Inside the Barrel It’s All About Chemistry

Wood is porous, and as whiskey ages in a barrel, the changes in temperature and the barometric pressure push the bourbon into and out of the staves. As the spirit interacts with the barrel, chemical interactions occur between the distillate and the wood so that the spirit absorbs flavor from the wood. In addition, oxidation occurs within the barrel, especially as more whiskey evaporates as part of the angel’s share. Oxidation itself causes changes to the substances in the distillate that give whiskey its flavor. 

The spirit’s time in the barrel is both additive and subtractive. Flavors are added to the distillate from the barrel, some chemicals in the spirit are transformed through the chemical reactions of oxidation. And other off-flavors are removed, both through interaction with the barrel and oxidation. 

How is Bourbon Aged and for How Long?

Wilderness Trail Bourbon Rickhouse, sun through windows into the sides of barrels resting in ricks
Wilderness Trail Bourbon Rickhouse

Upon your first step (and sniff) inside a bourbon warehouse (called a rick house) a waft of bourbon scent washes over you. It’s this wave of bourbon aroma that wraps you up in the sweetest smelling blanket ever. Below the scent of the spirit you have the woody scent of the barrels and a slight earthy scent from the earthen floor.

I wish there was a way to send it through the ether so you could smell it. The closest I’ve found is a Charred Oak scented candle sold by Sweet Mash in Lawrenceburg Kentucky, the home of Four Roses.

Bourbon spends between two to ten or more years in a rickhouse, aging, with the spirit moving in and out of the wood staves through the seasons. 

Although there’s no minimum age to call something bourbon, it must be aged 2 years to be called straight bourbon whiskey. If it’s aged less than four, the age needs to be stated on the label. 

Many bourbons are barreled after four to six years, especially now, during the bourbon boom. Imagine making a product and having to wait four years to sell it – paying taxes on it each year. During those four years, the spirit absorbs vanilla and oak flavors from the wood, develops caramel, citrus or cherry notes, softens and mellows. 

Age vs Quality in Bourbon

Each distillery and each master distiller has preferences for the places and time he ages his barrels to make a certain bourbon expression. Some like to keep to six to eight years, others age their bourbon longer. Some bottle after four or five years. 

But age doesn’t necessarily designate quality. Great four-year-old bourbons exist and some less than satisfactory eight- and ten-year-old bourbons exist. More time in the barrel can smooth out the spirit and make it sweeter, but too much time in a barrel, especially in the hotter parts of the rick house, can make the bourbon dry and overly woody.

It’s all about balance.

The Master Distiller and her team evaluate bourbons while they age, bring them out for bottling and batch them with bourbon from other barrels to make a specific flavor profile for a particular bourbon. 

Some Great Bourbons For Beginners

Every palate is different, but in general, bourbon beginners find luck with some of the following bourbons:

Maker’s Mark – this easy-sipping whiskey is softer on the palate because it’s made with wheat instead of rye as the flavoring grain. Sip it on the rocks for a great intro to bourbon that doesn’t burn all the way down.

Elijah Craig Small Batch – a great bourbon for sipping or cocktails, this expression from Heaven Hill Distillery consistently wins awards. Its taste remains approachable, but it has a long finish and offers more complex notes than Maker’s Mark.

Four Roses Small Batch – I consistently return to Four Roses Small Batch for new drinkers because of its well-rounded flavor, easy finish, and agreeable nature in cocktails.

Old Forester (86 proof) – Maybe because it’s my hometown bourbon this bourbon remains on my shortlist for new bourbon drinkers. It’s affordable at its price point, complex in cocktails, and supremely easy to sip both on the rocks or neat.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon – The flagship expression from Buffalo Trace Distillery always belongs on a beginner’s bourbon list as a great, approachable entry, both in price and flavor.

Conclusion

There’s so much more to bourbon and the bourbon industry, but I wanted to give you a good basis to attend any whiskey tasting and sip confidently and knowingly while sharing a pour with some new friends. This discussion of bourbon for beginners gives those new to America’s Native Spirit a solid basis of information to cultivate a taste for and an obsession with bourbon whiskey.

By on March 12th, 2021
Picture of Heather Wibbels, Cocktail Contessa, pouring a cocktail

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey enthusiast (Executive Bourbon Steward, no less) with a passion for cocktails. She loves researching and designing cocktails, drinking cocktails, and teaching cocktails. Mostly whiskey cocktails, given her Kentucky location

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