The Definitive Guide to Drinking Bourbon the Right Way
First off, the title of this post isn’t exactly accurate. All you have to do to drink bourbon the “right way” is swallow it. What we’re really getting at when we speak of drinking bourbon properly is tasting bourbon properly. Once you’ve made that distinction–the one between drinking and tasting–you’re ready to develop an appreciation for the nuances of America’s native spirit.
It might not seem like a big deal, but the glass you drink from can have a huge impact on your bourbon-tasting experience. A Glencairn is generally considered ideal. Its shape, almost like a small daiquiri glass with a narrow neck, does three things: 1) It concentrates the bourbon’s aroma and dissipates the smell of alcohol 2) It allows the bourbon to be swirled without spilling, and 3) It lets you get a clear, undistorted look at the bourbon’s appearance.
Ice, Water, and Other Additions
There’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying bourbon on the rocks, with your favorite mixer, or in a nice cocktail. However, for the purposes of appreciating a particular bourbon’s unique character, it’s always best to sample it neat. That means straight and at room temperature. Some aficionados swear that adding a few drops of distilled water enhances both aroma and flavor, and science seems to agree with them. Just pour about a half-ounce of your preferred bourbon in a clean, dry Glencairn, add a drop or two of water if you like, and let it rest for a moment before proceeding.
Plenty of time, effort, and skill go into crafting a quality bourbon. There’s a lot to be learned just by looking at it, and a lot to be admired. Hold your bourbon up to a source of natural light and appreciate its beautiful color. Keep in mind that bourbons tend to get darker with age. How would you describe yours? Also note the consistency of the bourbon. Some are thin, while others have an almost syrupy consistency that portends a fuller mouthfeel.
Your senses of smell and taste are highly complementary. But it’s also important to be aware of your bourbon’s aroma on its own. Try smelling your bourbon without swirling it first. Just gently bring the glass to your nose and, with your lips slightly parted, inhale deeply. What do you smell? Remember, there aren’t any wrong answers. Just practice honing your perception. Next, try aerating your bourbon by giving it a vigorous swirl before smelling it again. Notice anything different?
Now for the fun part. Take a small sip of bourbon, doing your best to direct it to the middle of your tongue. Don’t swallow it. Keep your lips slightly parted and roll the bourbon around your palate. Pay attention to the different flavors and sensations. Some simple descriptors to consider are words like spicy, fruity, sweet, and oaky. But be as specific as you can. Swallow.
The “finish” is nothing more than the lingering flavor that remains after you’ve swallowed your bourbon. If the flavor seems to stick to your palate for a while, your bourbon has a long finish. If the flavor disappears quickly, your bourbon has a short finish. Some flavors and sensations may linger longer than others, which can make the overall experience more or less enjoyable depending on your personal preferences. The more bourbons you try, and the more conscientiously you apply these tasting guidelines, the more informed those preferences will be.
For more information about properly tasting bourbon, including printable evaluation forms to help you keep track of your favorites, visit our bourbon tastings page.