How to drink bourbon the right way, according to an expert
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Bourbon is one of the best spirits that deserves to be enjoyed, appreciated, and handled with care. You should drink it like you know what you are doing.
Neat or on the rocks. Those were words I used to hear people talk about, not knowing what they meant. It wasn't until I had my first sip of whiskey, that’s when I realised how important these words are when it comes to such drinks. If you are interested in trying bourbon but aren’t sure where to start, worry not.
At its most basic, learning how to drink bourbon takes a little bit of curiosity and a sense of adventure. Below, South Africa Super Premium ambassador for Woodford Reserve Rowan Gibb provides a simple guide on how to drink it.
Know the ‘musts’
There are certain ‘musts’ and basics when it comes to bourbon that you need to understand, and it might take some time and practice to build your palate to appreciate the subtle nuances of bourbon. But getting the basics right will give you a multi-sensory experience. At its most basic, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Firstly, for whiskey to call itself bourbon, its mash bill (the mix of grains) must contain at least 51% corn, the rest is made of malted barley, rye, or wheat, and there are no additives like flavouring or colouring allowed, just pure water.
Next is the location – this is everything. For a whiskey to be called a bourbon, by law, it must be produced in the US and it must be aged in brand-new, charred white oak barrels, and matured for more than two years.
Did you know that 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky? The reason for this is that the area is rich in limestone, which is used and needed to filter the water, for the highest quality bourbon.
Keep your choice uncomplicated
Start with a straight bourbon whiskey, like a Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Because it's a caramel forward bourbon, it picks up more sweet flavour from the charred oak, which I believe is a great introduction to bourbon and doesn’t break the bank.
Now on to how to drink it. With any spirit, there’s an opportunity to drink it any way you like, and drinking bourbon is no exception. But to get the most out of the alluring liquid and to let the spirit's natural characteristics shine, it's best to serve it neat (with no water or ice whatsoever) otherwise known as straight – this can also be shaken or stirred with ice and then strained.
Exploring the flavour
If you really want to taste the bourbon and explore the flavour, you need to use the correct glass. The best way to bring out the richness of aromas and flavours is a tulip-shaped glass or whiskey tumbler.
The combined form and function of the glass is to deliver the ultimate taste experience. In fact, any simple glass with a wide brim is ideal to “nose” the bourbon. When you taste it, do it slowly.
First, waft it gently under your nose and then sip just a little and let it roll around your mouth, over your tongue and smack your lips, this is also known as the “Kentucky Chew”. As you swallow, the bourbon will warm you up as it goes down – this is called the “Kentucky Hug”.
On the rocks vs over ice
If you’re drinking your bourbon “on the rocks” or over ice, try adding larger cubes or ice spheres that will melt slower, instead of watering it down – which will adulterate some of the flavour. Over ice can be a refreshing way to drink it, especially if you’re new to bourbon.
Some people believe that adding small amounts of water releases some of the flavours, that is worth remembering that if you do add water to your bourbon, it will dilute the spirit and soften the punch of the alcohol, but adding a small dash of water will avoid diluting too much of the flavour.
Then there’s mixing. If you’ve had a cocktail made by a mixologist, the chances are you've enjoyed bourbon in that cocktail. Some of the most popular bourbon cocktails are an old-fashioned, mint julep or a Boulevardier, and bourbon is a great base for a cocktail, as the flavour is so diverse.
It doesn’t have to be expensive
Lastly, remember that you don’t have to drink the rarest or most expensive bourbons to enjoy it, and you don’t even have to drink it any other way than your own. Your willingness to try it and your appreciation of the fact that behind every bottle is years of talent and crafting, already makes you an enthusiast.