Whether you’re new to bourbon or looking to rekindle an old love for it, there’s never been a better time to explore this famed whiskey subcategory. It’s accessible, explorable, and most of all, versatile, with flavor and sweetness that’s suitable for a range of preparations from plain-as-day neat to a fanciful cocktail. You can do a whole lot with bourbon, and it’s a spirit you don’t need to stress over to enjoy.
But with knowledge comes power, and it’s helpful to learn some basic guidelines so you — and maybe your guests — can get a full-bodied experience. As a native Kentuckian raised just blocks from some world-class distilleries, I’ve taken bourbon etiquette for granted for most of my life. However, diving deeper into bourbon’s history and lore has strengthened my love for it.
Here are nine basic tips, tidbits, and facts that can help anyone enjoy bourbon just a bit more on the next sip.
True: Bourbon must be made in the United States. It’s America’s native spirit and, via manufacturing requirements mandated by Congress, a “distinctive product” of the United States. (All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey qualifies as bourbon.)
False: Bourbon must be made in Kentucky.
While most of the world’s fine bourbon originates in The Bluegrass State — and indeed, it’s historically bourbon’s central home as America’s first western frontier — the spirit can be manufactured elsewhere in the United States.
Kentucky’s heritage, central geography, frequent weather changes, and limestone-filtered water combine to create an ideal environment for bourbon distillation and aging. But in recent decades, distillers across the country have set up shop and created some truly fantastic bourbons with their own eccentricities. It’s a good excuse to explore new brands.
Fine Scotch has given the whiskey world one stereotype that isn’t a universal rule: Older doesn’t always mean better. Growing up in Central Kentucky, I was told by numerous distillers that the sweet spot of bourbon aging was somewhere between four and 12 years. That’s a huge range that can change based on factors like weather, water, and humidity. It’s worth noting that all bourbons must be aged in virgin charred white oak barrels, and the spirit’s color and sweetness largely comes from the barrel itself. But leaving bourbon in the barrel for longer can lead to diminishing returns on flavor and drinkability.
And while there are some truly fantastic bourbons aged longer than 12 years, older won’t always mean better or even more flavorful. Likewise, the most expensive, oldest batches won’t always beat out younger versions when it comes to overall quality. With this liquor, you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy a world-class pour.
This is one of the first tips you’ll learn if you’re lucky enough to tour an operating distillery. Adding a few drops or even a dash of water to your bourbon can help unlock new, complex flavors. If you enjoy a particular bourbon straight out of the bottle, then more power to you! But don’t be afraid to explore adding a bit of water to see if it’s more pleasing to you.
By law, bourbon is a product that must be made without additives or extra flavorings, but it’s already extremely complex and worth experimenting with. Bourbon is a drink meant to be enjoyed, not fussed over.
Similarly, don’t stress too much if your ice melts a bit before the drink is finished. You may find the bourbon’s flavor gets even better toward the bottom of the glass!
I don’t care how special a bottle looks, or how rare the description makes it sound. Whether it’s small batch, bottled in bond, single barrel, special edition, you name it, there will always be more bourbon. It’s (thankfully!) a renewable resource, and distillers will constantly explore to try new grain blends and techniques.
Don’t hide away a favorite bottle just because it may be hard to get again. Enjoy it when you want, with the people you want, and look forward to finding that next great bottle you really love.
Bourbon is a natural product, and many parts of the manufacturing process — from the grains themselves to the aging environment, in varying degrees — are up to Mother Nature. If you enjoy a particular brand, don’t be shocked to find some small differences from bottle to bottle. Though most bourbon is blended from multiple barrels, and distillers work hard to preserve quality, there can still be variations between batches. It’s just a fun idiosyncrasy of a very special drink.
American cocktail culture has exploded in popularity, and that’s come hand in hand with bourbon’s resurgence in the mainstream. There’s no better way to learn about bourbon’s intricate flavors than to try your hand at making cocktails! Whether it’s the tried-and-true Old Fashioned, a whiskey sour, or something a bit more modern, bourbon’s natural sweetness makes it a forgiving base if your drink doesn’t come out exactly according to plan.
Before freshly distilled bourbon touches a barrel, it’s a high-proof, clear liquid that goes by many names: white lightning, raw dog, white dog, white whiskey, etc. The unaged product can’t be marketed as bourbon, but more and more distillers are offering it for sale branded separately from their normal products. Most also offer tastings of the raw bourbon on distillery tours.
White lightning probably won’t be your favorite drink, but tasting it is a unique way to learn how bourbon’s flavor and color change so dramatically during the aging process. Consider it a “peek under the hood” for people who want to learn where their favorite whiskey comes from.
As a native Kentuckian, I might get in trouble for saying this, but here it goes: There are great bourbons to be had from all across the country.
All will carry a bit of that inherent sweetness, but the differences between distilleries and regions are incredible to explore. The next time you try a new bourbon, make sure to note the origin, not just the brand.
Ultimately, enjoying bourbon is meant to be done on your time and in your way. It’s uniquely American, born out of settlers moving west and hoping to enjoy some quality hooch along the way. Bourbon is a natural product, aged in and around nature, as celebrated for its eccentricities as it is for its heritage.
Whether you prefer your bourbon neat, on the rocks, with a dash of water, mixed in a bespoke cocktail, or as a transformative cooking ingredient, don’t let anyone tell you there’s one best way to enjoy it. It’s up to you to figure out your favorite way to enjoy bourbon. And what a fun journey that is.
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Maggie Kimberl is one of the most respected and prolific writers in American whiskey, and her journey into the bourbon industry is one-of-a-kind.
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