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How to drink bourbon, according to an expert

5 things to know about drinking bourbon - according to those in the know...

How to drink bourbon, according to an expert

Bourbon is in rude health right now. Recent statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reckon that sales for American whiskey were up 10.5 percent in 2022, surpassing that of beer.

With so many of us drinking bourbon then, we better make sure that you are tasting it properly. That's where this 'how to drink bourbon' guide comes in.

Now, we have been taste testing bourbon for a number of years now, but we wanted to consult the true experts on this one. And nobody is more of an expert than Freddie Johnson the VIP Visitor Lead at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

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...

(Main image Credit: Getty images)

How to drink bourbon, according to an expert
Image Credit: Getty Images

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.

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.”

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.”

(This article was originally published in 2020 and has been updated)