Bourbon 101 – What Does it Taste Like And How Can You Drink it?

Bourbon 101 – What Does it Taste Like And How Can You Drink it?

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.

First things first!

Let’s start with some basics. There are certain ‘’musts’’ when it comes to Bourbon.

- For a Whiskey to call itself Bourbon, its mash must contain at least 51% corn, the rest can be filled out with malted barley, rye or wheat. Oh, and no added flavoring, coloring or additives allowed. Just good old water.
- Location, Location, Location: By law, Bourbon must be produced in the US.

- Today Bourbon must be distilled no higher than 160 proof, barreled no higher than 125 proof and bottled no lower than 80 proof.

- Bourbon must be aged in a brand-new, charred white oak barrel and it has to be matured. An age statement on the label is only required if the Bourbon is less than two years old, but many older ones proudly proclaim their tenure in the barrel.
Want to put your knowledge into practice? Check out this list of the Best Bourbons to drink in 2022!

How to drink Bourbon?

With any Spirit, there’s an opportunity to be as simple or creative as you like. Drinking Bourbon is no exception.

1. Neat or straight

To let the Spirit’s natural characteristics shine, serve it neat (meaning with no water or ice whatsoever, just Bourbon!) or straight (shaken/stirred with ice and then strained). If you really want to taste the Spirits and explore its flavors, this method is the way to go.


The best drinking vessel to bring out the richness of aromas and flavors is Glencairn glass. It combines both form and function to deliver the ultimate tasting experience. If you don’t own one, any tulip shaped glass or Whisky tumbler is perfectly ok.

2. On the rocks

Some Spirits are meant to stand solid on their own, while others benefit from the addition of ice. Served over ice a.k.a "on the rocks'' can be a refreshing drinking method if you’re trying to acclimatize yourself to Bourbon, but it does adulterate some of the flavor. A useful tip on serving: Try adding big cubes or spheres to your Bourbon. They melt slower so it gets chilled, but less watered down than if using regular ice cubes.
The best glass for Bourbon on the rocks is the Whisky tumbler otherwise known as the ‘’rocks’’ glass, the Old Fashioned glass, or lowball glass. Due to its wide rim, the tumbler isn’t ideal for nosing, but it doesn’t need to be – this one’s for filling with ice and a Bourbon of your choosing.


3. With water

Some people believe that adding a few drops of water to your Bourbon actually releases the flavors. This will dilute the Spirit a little bit, but also soften the punch of the alcohol. Try adding a splash of water one step at a time. If you end up with too much water, your only remedy is to add more Bourbon.
Generally, a simple glass with a wide brim ideal for nosing is a safe bet for drinking Bourbon with water. There is some preference towards tulip shaped glasses that concentrate Bourbon aroma towards your nose and work really nice for swirling.

4. Mixing

Another way to enjoy Bourbon is in cocktails.
If you search the interwebs for Bourbon cocktails, one of the most popular is the classic Mint Julep—that traditional warm-weather trifecta of alcohol, mint, and sugar that is as much a part of the Kentucky Derby as fast horses and big hats. Let’s not forget Manhattan and Old Fashioned which wouldn’t survive the century if they weren’t good.
Bourbon’s diversity also extends to the kitchen. Indulge in multiple Bourbon and food pairings and your breakfast and other meals will never be the same again.
Looking for a perfect gift for a Bourbon lover?
Take your friend or a family member on a Whisky exploration journey from the comfort of their home or gift them a whole year of fun with Flaviar membership.

Flaviar Whiskey Exploration Kit 2022

Best Bourbon under 100 bucks

If you’re trying to get something special we’ve compiled a list of different styles, ages and brands of best-rated Bourbons in the Flaviar community you can get without breaking the bank.

These Bourbons under $100 are a real taste sensation, however, don't blast your budget!


But if you’re a complete Bourbon beginner, you can easily pick up a few Bourbons under $50 and turn a nightcap into a night you’ll (hopefully) never forget. You can never go wrong with Michter's US*1 Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey, Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon or FEW Cold Cut Bourbon.

Are there many different Bourbon flavors?

For a drink that's as simple as Bourbon, there are a surprisingly large number of flavor 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 flavors 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 flavor 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 Bourbon is sweet. Bourbon aging takes place in new charred-oak barrels. Due to that charring process, compounds that create the flavors 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 flavors of vanilla, caramel, custard, butterscotch, marzipan, maple, honey or chocolate.

Which sweet Bourbons are for beginners?

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

When 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 flavors 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 flavors.

Which hot and spicy Bourbons are for beginners?

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

Floral Bourbons

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon Flavour SpiralMost of the time, floral flavors in a Bourbon are a by-product of the yeast used for fermentation. Along with carbon dioxide and ethanol, these little guys create flavor 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.

Which floral Bourbons are for beginners?

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 flavors 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.

They 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.

Which baking spice Bourbons are for beginners?

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

Wood-Forward Bourbons

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


At 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 flavor 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 flavors. Wood-forward Bourbons can be tannic like black tea or rich with flavors of leather and tobacco. They can also be very expensive and hard to appreciate for the beginner.

Which wood forward Bourbons are for beginners?

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 flavor 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 flavor from the corn, barley, rye or wheat used in their creation. Think notes like hot cereal or cornbread.

Which grain-forward Bourbons are for beginners?

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

And last but not least, the wheated Bourbon legends like your Pappy Van Winkles, and Buffalo Trace Antiques that replace rye in their mash bill recipes, resulting in a sweeter and smoother profile (think rye bread vs. wheat bread).


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

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