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How to drink bourbon, according to the experts

5 things to know about drinking bourbon.

How to drink bourbon, according to the experts
Marc Chacksfield
05 November 2020

Bourbon is in rude health right now. Recent barrel counts suggest that over 2 million barrels were filled with the good stuff in 2019. What you have is a spirit that’s holding its own against the likes of gin.

While we are (still) in the midst of Covid-19, distillers are adapting to make sure their drinks are getting to consumers, as well as making sure their distilleries can be of use.

“The Buffalo Trace Distillery experiences a flood about once every ten years or so, so we always have to be prepared to adapt our business,” says Freddie Johnson the VIP Visitor Lead at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

“Throughout the pandemic, this is more true than ever, and we have had to remain alert and reactive to ever-changing restrictions. As well as continuing to produce our award-winning bourbons, we have also been producing hand sanitiser to promote a safe working environment across the Buffalo Trace Distillery and for others who purchase it.”

Johnson knows a thing or two about bourbon. A third generation employee at Buffalo Trace Distillery, he’s been hanging around the distillery since he was five and promised his father he would work there during his lifetime.

Then there’s Drew Mayville, who has more than 40 years of experience in the beverage alcohol industry and has been Master Blender and Director of Quality at Buffalo Trace since 2004.

“Our philosophy is to make fine bourbon, at a profit if we can, but always and most importantly fine and good quality bourbon,” Mayville tells us. “We are really proud to be the most awarded distillery in the world and we are continuously striving and improving to be even better.”

Two perfect people, then, to chat all things bourbon. Here are five things you need to know about how to drink bourbon, according to the experts.

How to drink bourbon, according to the experts

1. Water is your friend

“When being presented with a bourbon or whiskey you’re not familiar with, always remember water is your friend,” says Johnson.

“Have your water on the side, preferably spring water. Non-chlorinated. Never pour the water into the drink, because you don’t know how much dilution opens up the flavors. If you over dilute you can never get back to the original taste of the spirit.

“Get acclimated by starting with a sip of water in your mouth then take a sip of bourbon. This process reduces the dominance of the alcohol allowing more subtle flavors to come forth.

“Now go neat to notice the differences. This process maintains the integrity of the initial pour.”

2. Let the bourbon tell its story

“I always like to suggest that each bourbon tells you its own story - it has a beginning, middle and end,” says Mayville. “Take a small sip, swirl around your palate with your lips slightly parted to take in air, swallow and repeat.

“As you taste, each bourbon transitions across the palace (the beginning, middle and end) in a very distinctive way with its own descriptive characteristics - just like its own fingerprint.”

How to drink bourbon, according to the experts

3. There’s no ‘right’ way to drink bourbon

“Bourbon is extremely versatile, and can be served with a mixer or over ice, depending on what you prefer,” says Mayville. “My personal preference is to drink it neat, so I can appreciate the quality and the individual tastes and flavours.”

4. Once a bourbon is bottled it won’t get better with age

“One of the most asked questions is if Bourbon continues to age like fine wine when it’s bottled,” says Johnson. “The answer is that it doesn't, once it leaves the barrel and enters the bottle the ageing process stops.

“We are also asked a lot about the differences between whiskey and bourbon, and where bourbon is produced. It is a common misconception that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, US, however it can actually be made anywhere in the United States, with 95% of production currently taking place in Kentucky.”

How to drink bourbon, according to the experts

5. There are bourbons that will turn the head of a single malt drinker

“I would suggest you pour a dram of Eagle Rare into a Glencairn glass, and in a second glass pour your favorite Islay Single Malt,” says Johnson.

“Let them both breathe for a moment, then swirl both and gently bring the Eagle Rare to your nose, and then your single malt. Take a small sip of the Eagle Rare and allow it to linger for a bit before swallowing. Now repeat with your favorite single malt. Then try opening both with a splash of water. That should be enough to convince you.”

“Through my travels around the world, I’ve found that the Scot’s really enjoy our products,” says Mayville. “When I taste in Scotland, I find that they appreciate some of our uncut/unfiltered products. I would have you taste our W.L. Weller (wheated-bourbon), George T. Stagg (rye-bourbon).

“I guarantee that these exceptional bourbons will open up your eyes and might sway you a little.”