How to Drink Bourbon the Right Way

Nov 04, 2022

Snifter of bourbon.

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Bourbon is a special class of whiskey with a sweeter taste than most other high-proof liquors. Although there’s technically no “wrong” way to enjoy the drink, bartenders, distillers and other liquor connoisseurs have developed some unspoken rules about how to drink bourbon. Here are seven rules for drinking bourbon that will help you maximize the tasting experience.

1. Decode the Label

Despite its many requirements in the production process, bourbon is a rather broad category of whiskey. Brands use many pseudoscientific terms to set their bourbon apart. The main term you should look for is Straight Bourbon, which means there are no artificial flavors or preservatives. 100% of the taste comes from corn and other natural ingredients.

U.S. law also requires straight bourbon to age for at least two years, so you know you’re getting a quality aged product. As with most other high-proof spirits, the older the bourbon, the better.

2. Find a Budget-Friendly Brand

Bourbon is one of the more budget-friendly spirits available – certainly more flexible than wine and scotch. You should have no issue finding a good handle for under $40. These are some of the most popular inexpensive bourbon brands:

  • Maker’s Mark
  • Wild Turkey 101
  • Evan Williams
  • Four Roses
  • Old Forester
  • Woodford Reserve

Since you’re still learning how to drink bourbon, you won’t notice much of a flavor difference between the brands. Start with the cheapest one you can find, develop your palate and make small upgrades from there.

A glass of bourbon by a fire

3. Get the Right Glassware

Using the proper glassware is crucial for capturing the bourbon’s aroma and flavor. These are the most appropriate types of glassware you should use:

  • Glencairn glass
  • Rocks glass
  • Old Fashioned

If you’re drinking bourbon from a shot glass, solo cup or a random kitchen glass, you’re doing it wrong. The drink will go down much better with something wide and tapered at the top. This structure helps the bourbon’s scent funnel upwards and fill the glass, giving you a strong impression of the taste before it touches your lips.

5. Use Large Chunks of Ice

You can choose to drink bourbon straight-up, but we recommend some ice for beginners. Try using a large singular chunk of ice instead of smaller crushed pieces. A larger chunk helps maintain the bourbon’s initial consistency as long as possible. It also keeps the drink cold longer, which is one of the most important parts of drinking any form of alcohol.

Make sure you put the bourbon in the freezer for a couple of hours and freeze a handful of sizable pieces before pouring your first glass. The colder the beverage, the better.

5. Embrace the Dilution

As with any iced drink, you can expect some dilution. In bourbon’s case, a little bit of water can actually improve the drinking experience. Some high-rye bourbons are almost too spicy, and the dilution cools the drink down and helps reveal the sweeter side. It’s always better for beginner drinkers to develop their taste preferences with some assistance from water. 

Of course, dilution also helps us pace ourselves. If we drank everything straight-up, we’d be wasted in an hour. If getting wasted in a small period of time is your goal, bourbon isn’t the drink for you. Every sip ought to be savored.

A glass of bourbon splashing

6. Perform a Taste Taste

Bourbon experts evaluate its taste with three criteria: nose (scent), palate (flavor) and finish. The “legs” also play a role, which refers to the residue left behind on the glass after you take a sip. Here’s the right way to assess each criterion:

  • Nose: swirl the bourbon around the glass and put your nose above the liquid. You can even do this test with one nostril at a time to pick up the more subtle notes.
  • Palate: take a sip just big enough to coat your tongue. Take note of which parts of your tongue reacted the most to the drink. Does it burn anywhere? Do the flavors change from the front to the back? You’ll be surprised at how many different flavors you notice.
  • Finish: after doing the palate test, swallow the sip without chasing it. Did any new flavors emerge? How long did the taste linger in your mouth?

It’s also important to clear your sinuses and taste buds to get an accurate understanding of the bourbon’s flavor. Rinse your mouth with room-temperature water and smell something else – your clothes, a candle, anything – before going through the tests.

7. Find a Favorite Cocktail

You should first learn how to drink bourbon with just ice, but there are also many delicious mixed drinks you should try. Its sweet and spicy flavors pair well with a variety of fruit juices and other mixers. Find a favorite bourbon cocktail and make it the staple of your drinking evenings from now on. You’ll have a much easier time downing a handful of cocktails than drinking a dozen beers!

Broaden Your Beverage Horizons

Bourbon is one of the broadest and most popular high-proof spirits around. Instead of drinking light beer all the time, broaden your beverage horizons with a smooth pour of bourbon on the rocks or a fresh cocktail!

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Jack Shaw is a senior writer at Modded. Jack is an avid enthusiast for keeping up with personal health and enjoying nature. He has over five years of experience writing in the men's lifestyle niche, and has written extensively on topics of fitness, exploring the outdoors and men's interests. His writings have been featured in SportsEd TV, Love Inc., and Offroad Xtreme among many more publications.