How to Drink Bourbon

There’s an art to nosing, tasting and pairing our favorite spirit. And you can learn it all in about five minutes.

June 30, 2023 8:44 am
Whiskey in a glass being held by man in suit
It's really not that hard to enjoy bourbon.
Kevin Trimmer/Getty

Back in ancient times — say, the 1950s — the answer to “How do you drink bourbon?” was easy. You’d pour a large tumbler of the stuff and knock it back with a couple of quick gulps. Or you’d go to a bar and say “Bourbon, make it a double,” and then knock it back with a couple of quick gulps. They were simpler times. But not necessarily better.

Bourbon, and distilled spirits in general, were drunk, sure, but they weren’t truly tasted. Nowadays, we better understand that the best bourbons aren’t just a vehicle to get us bombed (although it does that very well too). There’s a whole lot of artistry and craftsmanship to take into account, a wide and complex palette of flavors and aromas. The big question nowadays is, how do we tease out all the magic that bourbon has to offer? With bourbon as with life, it can seem like the more answers you get, the more questions pop up. But we’re gonna give it a shot anyway.

Whiskey being poured into two Glencairn glasses on a bar counter
Behold, the almighty Glencairn glass, ideal for tasting bourbon

What’s the ideal glass for drinking bourbon? 

There are probably as many answers as there are glasses. But we’ll stick to two of the most popular types of glass. A squat Old Fashioned/rocks glass feels great in the hand and has a little bit of weight to it, so it feels substantial. And it’s pretty hard to tip over, which can be helpful depending on where you’re drinking it. But to get more of the bourbon’s aromatics, and a more concentrated flavor as a result, a Glencairn glass, with its wide bowl and narrow opening, is an ideal vessel. In a nutshell, a rocks glass is a solid option for parties or social situations, while a Glencairn glass is great for a serious tasting session. But whatever glass you use, make sure it’s clean.

Whisky exporter Allan Scott uses a nosing glass to test the quality of one of his brands in his shop, March 16, 2004, in Glasgow, Scotland
Whatever whiskey you’re nosing, keep your mouth slightly open
Photo illustration by Chris Furlong/Getty Images

How do you nose a bourbon? 

Just for the record, nosing is smelling. And there are right and wrong ways to smell it. Such as, don’t stick your nose in the glass and take a big whiff — the alcohol will singe your nose hairs, especially if you’re nosing a high-proof or cask-strength bourbon (see: our list of the best sipping bourbons). For a more detailed primer on how to do it, here are some tips from Dan McKee, master distiller of Michter’s: “I personally like to leave my mouth slightly open while breathing in through my nose. I then pass the lower rim of the glass under my nose from right to left. Then I will nose the middle and top rim of the glass. Repeat as often as you would like. In doing so, this will allow for different aromatic experiences.” If you don’t want to use that much valuable drinking time on the aromas, just remember to keep your mouth open a little. That’s key.

What’s a better way to taste a bourbon — neat or with water? 

If you always drink bourbon with Coke or in a highball or an Old Fashioned and would never dream of enjoying it neat, then feel free to go for what you know. But it’s always worth trying a bourbon unadulterated, at least for a sip or two. Frank Caiafa, author of The Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book and Spirits Portfolio Director of Banville Wine Merchants, says, “I taste everything, no matter what the proof is, straight with no water, just to get the true characteristics and to taste the intention of the distiller, to see what they want in there.” That said, distillers themselves will taste their bourbons very watered down, so the alcohol doesn’t get in the way of the flavor. So there’s nothing wrong with adding a few drops or more to your bourbon. Especially with higher-proof expressions, you may need a bit of water to tamp down the alcoholic heat and let the flavors come through more clearly. As Caiafa says, “I feel that if you buy a 750 ml bottle of cask strength bourbon, you’re really buying a liter.” In other words, don’t try to be macho — think of cask-strength as “you get to decide how much water to add.”

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Including excellent bottles from Barrell, Chicken Cock, Old Forester and more

OK, we’ve covered water. How about ice? 

With ice, you’re not only adding dilution, but you’re also changing the temperature of the bourbon, which will affect the aromatics and the flavors you get from it. You also get a drink that’s constantly changing and evolving as the ice melts. As Caiafa puts it, “If you put ice in right away, the first sip is a chilled glass of straight-up whiskey. The second sip is diluted, the third sip is maybe a little more palatable, and the fourth is a nice watered down cooling refreshing sip of cold liquid that sets you up for the next round.” With that in mind, remember that the chilling and the dilution dulls down the flavor profile somewhat. So with top-shelf bourbons, drinking them neat or with a little water is preferable. 

two Manhattan cocktails
An ideal bourbon drink? A Manhattan (pictured) or a whiskey sour.
Mike Falco

What’s a good go-to bourbon cocktail? 

Per Michter’s Dan McKee: “If I’m making a cocktail at home, I really enjoy a simple whiskey sour.  I also like adding a little red wine to the whiskey sour to make a New York sour.  It’s a nice touch.  When I’m enjoying cocktails created by the professionals, a nice Manhattan with a little extra cherry juice is exceptional.” Frank Caiafa prefers rye to bourbon in his Manhattan, but agrees on the whiskey sour: “I think the lemon and the bourbon pair well together. The sweetness of the bourbon and the sour lemon are a good pairing.” He also likes the Creole Lady, which is equal parts bourbon and Madeira plus a teaspoon of grenadine. And let us not forget the Old Fashioned, one of the tastiest cocktails that’s also one of the easiest to make.

How about food pairings? What goes best with bourbon? 

No spirit goes better with beef than bourbon, whether you’re talking steak, burgers or tartare. The sweetness of the bourbon pairs brilliantly with the savory umami notes of a nice cut of beef. As McKee says, “A nice New York strip with a neat pour of bourbon is always a great experience. Bourbon and thinly sliced aged hams also go very well together. For more of a desert pairing that may seem odd, taking a piece of milk chocolate and blue cheese together followed by a sip of bourbon is a unique and delightful experience.”

Do you have any cool secret bourbon hacks that I can use to impress my friends?

Here’s McKee’s hack: “I don’t often admit this, but I find it enjoyable to eat a few coffee beans and follow it up with a sip of bourbon. The flavors from the coffee beans provide a unique pairing with the rich caramels and vanillas offered from the bourbon.” Frank Caiafa has a handy and simple method for “rescuing” subpar bourbons and enhancing good ones: “Whether with water or neat, a coin-sized piece of orange peel expressed over the top of the bourbon [to release the oils in the peel] and then discarded brings a whole new level of greatness to whatever bourbon you drink. Especially if the whiskey means a little help.”

How much sipping and nosing and fussing do I need to do before I just get down to drinking?

 For some of us, there’s no such thing as getting too serious about our bourbon — we could spend hours happily nosing and sipping and writing down tasting notes. But we also understand those who want to think less and drink more. And in that situation, the three-sip rule is a pretty good one. The first sip is the “hello” sip — you’re coating the tongue, making the introduction to your taste buds. The second sip is the “nice to meet you” sip — hold the bourbon on the tongue for a little while, lay that base, get more of the flavors and aromatics and acclimate yourself to the alcohol. And the third sip is when it all comes together and you’re really fully tasting your bourbon, getting the subtleties, the less noticeable secondary flavors, all that good stuff. Heaven knows you can also nose and taste and furrow your brow from the first sip until the glass is empty. That can be fun, honest! But three sips is a pretty good benchmark.


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