Bourbon is a mandatory shelf staple for any certified whiskey lover. It’s got a rich heritage and a flavor profile that’s both bold and nuanced. This distinct character elevates bourbon, setting it apart from other types of American whiskey.

But if you truly want to make the most of your bourbon, you need to learn how to drink it. You’re not supposed to slam it down in a shot like a frat boy. High quality bourbon needs to be tasted with a certain planning and procedure.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well then read on, you’ll learn everything you need to know.

What is Bourbon

If you want a closer look, check out complete overview of bourbon.

Bourbon is a distinguished type of American whiskey, celebrated for its rich flavor and smooth character, primarily derived from its primary ingredient, corn. By law, to be labeled bourbon, the spirit must contain at least 51% corn in its mash bill, be aged in new, charred oak barrels, and distilled to no more than 160 proof. Unlike other whiskeys, bourbon undergoes a unique aging process that imbues it with a distinctive sweetness and robustness, making it a favorite among whiskey enthusiasts.

This spirit’s heritage and production are deeply rooted in the American South, with Kentucky often hailed as its heartland. Bourbon’s complexity and versatility not only make it a splendid drink to savor neat or on the rocks but also a popular choice for crafting a wide array of cocktails.

Choosing the Right Bourbon

Selecting the ideal bourbon involves navigating through a landscape of accolades, age, and flavor profiles. Accolades can guide enthusiasts towards critically acclaimed spirits, offering a benchmark of quality. However, the age of the bourbon, typically indicated on the label, reveals much about its character; older bourbons generally offer deeper, more complex flavors due to extended barrel aging.

Yet, the essence of bourbon appreciation lies in understanding its flavor profile. From the bold and spicy to the smooth and sweet, each bourbon presents a unique tasting journey. Whether you’re drawn to the rich history of a traditional Kentucky bourbon or the nuanced expressions of small batch and single barrel selections, aligning your choice with your personal taste preferences ensures a rewarding bourbon experience.

Infographic on selecting bourbon by accolades, age, flavor.
How to Drink Bourbon – Three Ways to Choose the Right Bourbon

By Accolades

For a deeper exploration of what makes a whiskey valuable, check out our article on whiskey collecting.

Choosing a bourbon recognized with accolades ensures a selection celebrated for its excellence. Awards and high ratings from reputable competitions and critics serve as a testament to a bourbon’s quality, offering a reliable guide for those seeking exceptional spirits.

By Age

The age of bourbon significantly influences its flavor and complexity. Generally, bourbons aged longer have a richer, more developed profile, with notes of oak and vanilla becoming more pronounced. However, preference varies, and some may find the vibrant character of younger bourbons appealing.

By Flavor Profile

Understanding a bourbon’s flavor profile is key to finding your preferred sip. Bourbon flavors range from sweet caramel and vanilla to spicy rye and smoky oak. Identifying the flavors you enjoy will help narrow down choices, making it easier to select a bourbon that aligns with your taste preferences.

Preparing to Drink Bourbon

Preparing to drink bourbon begins with choosing the right glassware, which can significantly enhance the tasting experience. A Glencairn glass or a snifter, designed to concentrate the aromas, is ideal for savoring bourbon’s complexity. The decision to add water or ice is next, as both can open up the bourbon, revealing hidden nuances in its flavor profile.

A few drops of water can soften the alcohol’s bite, making the drink more approachable, while ice chills and dilutes the bourbon, potentially making it more refreshing but also affecting its intensity. The preparation process is a personal journey, allowing each individual to tailor the bourbon experience to their liking, whether they prefer it neat, with water, or on the rocks.

Guide to enhancing bourbon flavor with glassware, water, and ice.
How to Drink Bourbon – Preparing to Drink Bourbon


Selecting the appropriate glassware is crucial for maximizing the bourbon tasting experience. A Glencairn glass, with its narrow opening, is designed to focus the aromas towards the nose, enhancing the sensory experience. Alternatively, a snifter or a rocks glass can also be suitable choices, each offering a different way to savor the bourbon’s complex profile.


Dilution with a small amount of water can unlock new flavors and aromas in bourbon. This practice, often embraced by connoisseurs, involves adding just a few drops of water to the spirit. The addition of water can reduce the alcohol’s dominance on the palate, allowing more subtle notes to emerge, offering a smoother drinking experience.

Ice or No Ice

The decision to add ice or enjoy bourbon without ice hinges on personal preference. Ice cools the bourbon and gradually dilutes it, which can make the drink more refreshing and mellow out its intensity. However, purists may prefer their bourbon neat, without any additives, to fully appreciate its original flavor profile and warmth.

How To Properly Taste Bourbon

Before diving in too deep, it might be time to learn about the whiskey tasting process.

Properly tasting bourbon involves a deliberate process that engages all the senses to fully appreciate its depth and complexity. The journey begins with nosing the bourbon, a technique that allows one to identify the diverse array of aromas. Moving to assessing the palate, the focus shifts to the flavors that unfold in the mouth, from the initial taste to the evolving notes.

Finally, admiring the finish involves paying attention to the lingering aftertaste and the overall mouthfeel. This methodical approach not only enhances the tasting experience but also deepens one’s understanding and appreciation of bourbon’s unique character.

Guide on savoring bourbon steps illustrated.
How to Drink Bourbon – How to Taste Bourbon

Nosing The Bourbon

Nosing the bourbon is the initial step in bourbon tasting, inviting you to inhale deeply to detect its complex aromas. This stage uncovers the spirit’s bouquet, from sweet notes of vanilla and caramel to the spicy undertones of oak and hints of fruit. It sets the anticipatory stage for the flavors that will unfold, engaging the senses and enhancing the overall experience.

Assessing The Palate

Following the nosing, assessing the palate involves tasting the bourbon, allowing it to envelop the tongue to explore its rich flavors. This phase is about noting the interplay between sweetness, bitterness, spiciness, and other flavors as the bourbon reveals its character. It’s an exploration of how these flavors balance and complement each other, defining the bourbon’s distinctive taste profile.

Admiring The Finish

The final act, admiring the finish, focuses on the aftertaste and the sensation lingering in the mouth post-swallow. This step assesses the bourbon’s length and quality of finish, whether it leaves a lasting warmth or dissipates quickly. The finish can offer a final flourish of flavors, providing a satisfying conclusion to the tasting journey.

Best Cocktails For Bourbon

Bourbon, with its rich and versatile flavor profile, serves as the foundation for some of the most iconic and beloved cocktails. From the refreshing Mint Julep, synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, to the sour tang of a Bourbon Sour, these drinks highlight bourbon’s adaptability. The Boulevardier, with its sophisticated blend of bourbon, vermouth, and Campari, showcases the spirit’s ability to balance with bitter and sweet.

Meanwhile, the Bourbon and Blackberry Sage Smash offers a modern twist, combining bourbon with fresh fruit and herbs for a vibrant, contemporary cocktail. Each of these cocktails not only celebrates bourbon’s unique character but also demonstrates the spirit’s remarkable capacity to evolve and inspire creativity in mixology.

Top Bourbon Cocktails: Mint Julep, Sour, Boulevardier, Smash
How to Drink Bourbon – Best Cocktails for Bourbon

Mint Julep

The Mint Julep is a quintessential bourbon cocktail, blending bourbon, fresh mint, sugar, and crushed ice. Celebrated for its refreshing qualities, it holds a special place in Southern tradition, particularly as the iconic drink of the Kentucky Derby.

Bourbon Sour

A classic in the cocktail world, the Bourbon Sour masterfully combines bourbon with lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes an egg white for added smoothness. This drink beautifully balances the bourbon’s warmth with the crispness of citrus, offering a delightfully sour yet sweet experience.


The Boulevardier is a sophisticated concoction that marries bourbon with sweet vermouth and Campari. Its rich, complex flavor profile, marked by a harmonious blend of sweet, bitter, and boozy notes, makes it a revered choice for those seeking depth and complexity in their cocktails.

Bourbon and Blackberry Sage Smash

Offering a modern take on bourbon cocktails, the Bourbon and Blackberry Sage Smash combines bourbon with muddled blackberries, sage leaves, and lemon juice. This visually stunning and delicious cocktail showcases bourbon’s versatility, blending traditional flavors with contemporary mixology trends.