Many people find the journey to appreciating bourbon to be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. While it’s true that a refined palate is a part of enjoying this most quintessentially American spirit, the process of getting your taste buds trained up should be a fun and enjoyable one. It’s important to remember that, as with any hobby, you should enjoy it on your own terms. You can spend as much or as little time and money on the hobby as you’re comfortable with. And you can enjoy bourbon the way that you see fit.
To that end, we’ve offered a few tips and tricks for getting started appreciating all the various bourbons the country has to offer, as well as the names of bourbon drinks we most enjoy.
What Is Bourbon?
Before we can begin our deep dive into the world of bourbon, we should offer a definition. There are plenty of misconceptions about bourbon that have been passed down for years, leading to uncertainty among novice drinkers about whether the spirit they are about to enjoy is truly bourbon.
First, let’s clear up one of the most common misconceptions about bourbon. It does not need to be produced in Kentucky to legally claim the name of bourbon (although most bourbons still are). It does, however, need to be produced in the United States.
Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture including at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged in new, charred oak containers, and it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80 percent alcohol. When it is bottled, it must be at least 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol. For more information on the legal requirements for bourbon, read this article by the American Bourbon Association.
Another misconception regarding bourbon is that the oak barrels it’s aged in must be entirely American oak, but this is not the case. While the bourbon does have to be produced in the United States, the oak used in the aging process can come from anywhere. Indeed, some of the best bourbon is aged in barrels imported from countries such as Brazil or Japan.
You may have seen bourbon bottles that are labeled with “finished in wine barrels” and question whether they are truly bourbon or not since the law clearly states new oak barrels. The keyword there is finished. They must first be aged in new barrels that have never contained any other spirit. Afterward, however, they can be finished in other barrels to impart a final bit of complexity to the flavor.
Appreciating the Flavor
Your first foray into the world of bourbon shouldn’t be expensive. Too many people unfamiliar with the complexities that bourbon has to offer plunk down a great deal of money on an expensive brand, only to end up disappointed. The fact is, even the most die-hard bourbon enthusiasts still appreciate and enjoy the less expensive brands, and you needn’t spend a lot to find a quality product. When you’re just starting out, opt for something like Buffalo Trace, a bourbon with distinct notes of caramel and vanilla. It’s an inexpensive one, and it’s easy to find on the menu at most places.
Everyone enjoys their drinks in a different way, with some drinkers preferring ice and others not. There is no wrong way to enjoy bourbon, but the reason that purists avoid ice and opt to drink their bourbon neat is that ice in a drink will chill it to the point where the flavors are much more difficult to detect. Not only that, but the ice melting inside the drink will water down the bourbon and also weaken the flavors. With that said, if you prefer to have ice in your drink, go for it. As we’ve said, you should be enjoying this hobby on your terms.
If you do decide to try your drink neat, make sure that you pour it, or ask for it to be poured, at room temperature. A few drops of water, and no more, will open up the flavors. Take some time to enjoy the process. Swirl the glass around under your nose and allow the aromas to drift upward into your nostrils. Don’t simply sniff the bourbon. The harshness of the alcohol will make for a less than enjoyable experience if you do. Take small sips, and take a second to concentrate on the flavor notes that you detect. Over time, your palate will become more and more refined as you sample the various drinks available.
Refining Your Palate
As you become more studied in the art of appreciating bourbon, you’ll discover that your neighborhood pub just isn’t going to cut it in terms of selection or service. Most bars and restaurants have two or three bourbons available, at most, and they’re often served too cold in the wrong type of glass.
As you refine your palate, you’ll need to seek out a place that specializes in bourbon in order to continue progressing in your new hobby. Whether or not this is easy depends upon where you live. If you’re lucky enough to live in or near Scottsdale, for example, you can try Bourbon & Bones and even get a steak with your glass of bourbon.
If you can find the right bourbon bar, you can begin to try a new spirit every time you visit. The names of bourbon drinks we recommend include Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, and our favorite budget option, Evan Williams. Of course, these are just a few of the many, many bourbons you’ll eventually want to try. Ask the experts at your local bourbon bar to make their own recommendations.
A Word About Mixed Drinks
As we’ve said already, this article isn’t intended to turn you into a snob. While many purists won’t take their bourbon any other way than neat, at room temperature, you should be enjoying bourbon however you want to. If that means ordering mixed drinks, then you should certainly do so with pride. The names of bourbon drinks that we recommend from the cocktail menu include the Bourbon Sour and the Old Fashioned. Once again, ask your trusted bartender to make recommendations for you in this area.