Beginner's Guide To Bourbon

bourbon heritage header
bourbon heritage header

All photos by Maggie Kimberl.

Bourbon has never been so popular, yet many people are still unsure how to approach it. It doesn’t have to be intimidating- you just need a plan to get started. And maybe a few bottles of bourbon, too. But how do you know what to choose and how do you keep it all straight (pun totally intended)? Alcohol Professor has you covered.

What You’ll Need

  • Bourbon - more on this later.
  • A proper Glencairn glass or other whiskey glass. A typical whiskey glass will be shaped in such a way it will concentrate the aromas of the whiskey in a narrow top opening. You can drink your whiskey out of a shot glass, a rocks glass, or even right out of the bottle. However, you’re going to miss a lot of the nuances in the nose without a proper whiskey glass. Glencairn is the gold standard.
  • A notebook for taking notes. The Bourbon Tasting Notebook by Michael Veach and Susan Reigler is a handy resource because there are two sets of notes on many popular bourbons as well as plenty of room to take your own. It’s important to keep track of your thoughts as you go.

How To Choose Your Bourbon

Typically I recommend starting with a wheated bourbon (one with wheat in the mash bill along with corn and other grains, usually malted barley and/or rye) like Maker’s Mark or Larceny, as those tend to be more approachable to new bourbon drinkers because they are a bit sweeter and less rough around the edges. If you feel like a little more spice would appeal to you, start with a traditional bourbon. Bourbon traditionally has been made with a majority of corn- legally it has to be at least 51%- and malted barley and rye as the flavoring grain. Immigrants who settled in Kentucky were making rye whiskey up North because rye grows well there, and here it’s harder to grow rye so it was relegated to the flavoring grain. Jim Beam is the best-selling bourbon whiskey in the world, and several of their offerings have recently won Silver Medals at the New York International Spirits Competition, including Jim Beam Black and Knob Creek. It doesn’t get much easier than that. Craft spirits are also worth a look, though many of them tend to be younger right now because the distillers haven't had the chance to mature the whiskey as much as the older, more established brands yet.

From there, and this is where those notes come in handy, you need to determine what you like in the bourbon and what you don’t. You’ll want to hone in on your personal preferences to determine what you like best and choose your next bourbon based on what you liked and didn’t like about the first ones. If you think you might be leaning toward more spice go for something like Four Roses Small Batch or Yellow Label. If you like the sweeter wheated bourbons, try some of the wine barrel finished offerings from Angel’s Envy or Barton 1792. Just keep trying different bourbons until you find what you like.

The Kentucky Chew

bourbon maggie kimberl
bourbon maggie kimberl

There’s a proper way to taste bourbon, and it involves multiple senses. You should start by holding the glass up to the light and examine the color, clarity, and "legs" (the faint trail of alcohol dripping toward the bottom of the glass when it's swirled). Then you nose the whiskey by sticking your nose all the way into the Glencarin glass with your lips parted. If you don’t part your lips you will end up with a nose full of alcohol vapor and you won’t be able to smell anything at all. Some people breathe through their mouths and others through their noses. Then you want to take a sip and do the Kentucky Chew, swishing the bourbon all over your mouth. This is a technique that was perfected by Jim Beam’s late Master Distiller Booker Noe, and the tradition continues with is son Fred. You will want to base your assessment of the whiskey on your second or third taste, especially if you’ve been eating. Pay attention to the finish - most bourbons taste different on the finish from the initial sip.

Don’t be intimidated by the bourbon aisle. Before too long you will really know what’s what if you start with a plan and take careful notes. Welcome to the ranks of the whiskey geeks!