A Handy Beginner’s Guide To Bourbon

If you like going out and having a drink with friends, you probably have that one friend’s always talking about how great bourbon is. Even if whiskey or beer is more your thing, your friend is always talking about how you and all your buddies should check out a local bourbon bar.

Even if you don’t know much about bourbon, you’ve likely seen plenty of commercials and based all the familiar brands in the store: Makers Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Old Crow, Town Branch and Jim Beam just to name a few. In fact, bourbon is American’s native spirit and while it is closely associated with Kentucky, it can be distilled anywhere in the United States.

It’s true there are many bourbon brands you can find at a local bourbon bar, but bourbon is actually very distinct and tightly regulated in its making. Bourbon made for consumption within the United States mus be:

  • Made in the U.S.
  • Bottled at 80 proof at a minimum
  • Distilled at no more than 160 proof
  • Made from a mixture of grains (rye, wheat, barley) that includes 51% corn at a minimum. The corn helps give bourbon sweetness and whatever grain is used will give that bourbon a particular flavor. Many distillers of bourbon use that other 49% mixture to make their bourbons very distinct.
  • Aged in brand new containers of charred oak. Most bourbons are aged for a period of four to seven years.
  • Aged at no more than 125 proof

So if you’ve finally acquiesced to your friend’s pleas and you’re going to visit a local bourbon bar, here are some helpful things to know about different types of bourbon:

  • Straight bourbon is bourbon that’s been aged at least two years. If you drink it with no ice, this called drinking it neat.
  • The flavor profile of bourbon might be characterized as having notes of caramel or oak or vanilla. Such contrast makes it ideal for drinking on the rocks (with ice) or in cocktails.
  • If you go to a bourbon bar and see apple bourbon or cinnamon bourbon, know that it’s not true bourbon. Once flavors such as those have been added to a batch of bourbon, they must be labeled as whiskey liqueurs. If you’ve ever noticed in stores, brands like Jim Beam Apple don’t place bourbon so prominently on the label.
  • If you’re not looking to taste just straight bourbon, there are any number of cocktails you can enjoy. You can enjoy an old-fashioned, which is bourbon mixed with bitters, sugar and some fruit. You can enjoy a mint julep, which is arguably the most famous of all bourbon cocktails. You can have a Manhattan, which combines bourbon with bitters and some sweet vermouth. Heck, you can even use bourbon to spice up your holiday eggnog.

It’s estimated that 86% of Americans have had alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Even if alcohol isn’t a big deal to you, it’s not a bad idea to find a go-to drink to fall back on the next time you go to a whiskey bar, a bourbon bar or somewhere alcohol is prominently served. No one says you have to try all types of rare whiskeys, but you may find yourself more open to drinking different kinds of bourbon or whiskey as you learn more about them or find one you enjoy.

Armed with a little bit of knowledge and an open mind, you may take a liking to bourbon if you visit your local bourbon bar. Even if you don’t want bourbon neat or bourbon on the rocks, you can find a cocktail that’s enjoyable and won’t take away from your bourbon tasting experience.

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