Bourbon 101

You know it, and I know it. You are completely sick of all your Bourbon neophyte friends asking you for recommendations on what they should try. You want to tell them, "just let me drink my George T. Stagg in peace."

But you don't. Not necessarily because you are a good friend—though I'm sure that you are—but instead, because they will invariably want some too.

And as any Bourbon drinker worth her Pappy Van Winkle knows, your friend is not ready for that yet. It takes time and practice to build your palate to where you can appreciate the subtle nuances of a well-aged Bourbon or handle the power of a barrel-proof one. If you hand your young Bourbon padawan a glass of Stagg, they will choke, cough, and possibly be turned off of Bourbon forever.

Pappy Van Winkle Tasting - PHOTO: FLICKR/ Edsel Little

For a drink that's as simple as Bourbon, there are a surprisingly large number of flavour variations on the shelf. It's almost counter-intuitive.

Almost all Bourbon begins with the same three or four ingredients: corn, barley, and rye or wheat. And yet, the flavours produced range from floral and fruity to spicy and dry with an entire library of notes in between. Most Bourbons can be classified in one of the typical flavour profiles - a good place for your friends to start their journey of finding the right one.

Sweet Bourbons
Evan Williams Single Bareel Vintage Bourbon Flavour SpiralYou would have to forgive a beginner for thinking all Bourbons are sweet. Bourbon aging takes place in new charred-oak barrels. Due to that charring process, compounds that create the flavours of caramel and vanilla are present in almost every Bourbon.

But some Bourbons are sweeter than others. Whether that is due to the time in the barrel, the mash bill or some other factor depends on the Bourbon. Bourbons characterized as sweet tend to lead with the flavours of vanilla, caramel, custard, butterscotch, marzipan, maple, honey or chocolate.

Good examples of some of the sweeter beginner Bourbons are Maker's Mark, Evan Williams, or J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond.

Hot and Spicy Bourbons
OLD WELLER ANTIQUE - PHOTO: FLICKR/ Patrick TrubyWhen someone describes a Bourbon as spicy, they can mean one of two things. Spicy can mean hot like red pepper, or it can mean that a Bourbon is full of the spice flavours of baking spices.

Hot and spicy Bourbons are certainly the first. Sometimes this heat comes from the alcohol content, and sometimes it comes from where and how the Bourbon was aged.

In either case, it can present itself like the capsaicin from a red pepper. And like a spicy pepper, that heat can be very enjoyable if surrounded by the right blend of flavours.

If you want to see if you enjoy hot and spicy Bourbons, good ones to try are 1792 Small Batch, Old Weller Antique, and Old Grand-Dad 114 proof.

Floral Bourbons
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon Flavour SpiralMost of the time, floral flavours in a Bourbon are a by-product of the yeast used for fermentation. Along with carbon dioxide and ethanol, these little guys create flavour compounds that, when treated nicely, survive through distillation and maturation.

Floral notes, like honeysuckle or rose petals, often accompany fruity or herbal notes. Well- crafted floral Bourbons present floral notes as just one part of a well-balanced whole.

A few floral Bourbons for the beginner to explore are Four Roses Small Batch, Old Forester 86 proof, and Woodford Reserve.

Baking Spice Bourbons
Spicy, when used to describe the flavours in a Bourbon, is usually describing the baking spices of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and anise. These notes can come from any number of sources during the production of a Bourbon.

BUFFALO TRACE BOURBON - PHOTO: FLICKR/ Patrick TrubyThey can originate with the rye grain used in the cooking, the yeast used in the fermentation or the barrel used for the maturation. Or they could come from a combination of these.

Good beginner Bourbons that lead with baking spice flavours are Buffalo Trace, Ezra Brooks and Maker's Mark 46.

Wood-Forward Bourbons
By some estimates, at least 50 percent of a Bourbon's flavour comes from the barrel it matured in. And the longer the Bourbon spends in the barrel, the more flavour the Bourbon will pull from it.

WILD TURKEY 101 - PHOTO: FLICKR/ Steven DepoloAt 4 years a Bourbon is usually considered fully matured. That doesn't stop producers from leaving their product in the barrel a few years longer to get more of that barrel flavour into the final product, though.

Many drinkers like the notes that a bit more time in oak will impart to their Bourbon. Almond, walnut, cedar, pecan and yes, oak are all familiar oak-derived flavours. Wood-forward Bourbons can be tannic like black tea or rich with flavours of leather and tobacco. They can also be very expensive and hard to appreciate for the beginner.

If you are looking to see if you like wood forward Bourbons without breaking the bank, try Wild Turkey 101 proof, Elijah Craig Small Batch or Jim Beam Black.

Grain-Forward Bourbons
Basil Hayden's Flavour spiralGrain-forward Bourbons are on the opposite end of the flavour spectrum from the wood- forward ones.

These Bourbons have been more gently aged and haven't picked up as many of the oak characteristics.

As such you get more of the flavour from the corn, barley, rye or wheat used in their creation. Think notes like hot cereal or cornbread.

Good beginner Bourbons that showcase these grain flavours are Very Old Barton, Basil Hayden's, and Johnny Drum Private Reserve.

So, after all of that, where should we point our wannabe Bourbon-loving friends? The first step in knowing what you like is trying new things. Luckily, we know just the place to go... 

READ MORE ABOUT: bourbon, whiskey, bourbon flavours, tasting

By Eric


Even though he hates everything about winter, Eric Burke chose to live in Minnesota. He hides from the cold by drinking Bourbon and other American Whiskey. He writes about all of it at BourbonGuy.com.



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