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A Beginner's Guide to Appreciating Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon is the ultimate American spirit, considering the barrel-aged distilled spirit was originally produced in an area known as Bourbon County, Kentucky. To meet the legal definition of bourbon, it must be produced in the United States, must be created with at least 51% corn, and aged in new oak barrels. There are two types of bourbon whiskeys—straight and blended. Straight bourbon means that the bourbon has been aged for a minimum of 2 years, and has no other coloring or flavoring added. Blended bourbon whiskey can contain other flavoring or spirits, but must be at least 51% straight bourbon.

 How to Drink Bourbon: Straight or Blended

If you want to appreciate bourbon whiskey on its own, there are typically two ways to do it. Purists like to drink it neat, which means that the bourbon is at room temperature, and without ice. Some like to add a few drops of water to the whiskey, to "open up" the aroma of the bourbon. If you go this route, you may appreciate drinking your bourbon in a brandy snifter. The shape of the glass will help concentrate the aroma. It's best not to use brandy snifters for high proof bourbons. 

If you're a beginner, you might want to try bourbon whiskey on the rocks, or with a few cubes of ice. Pour yourself a finger or two of whiskey over ice. A finger is an informal measure, and is generally considered to be about three quarters of an inch or so.

Approximately one finger of Wild Turkey 101 proof boubon whiskey on the rocks.

Before drinking, take some time to enjoy the beauty of the color of your bourbon, and inhale the aroma. You may detect smokiness, hints of vanilla, pepper, or molasses. Bourbon isn't for chugging, so savor the experience. Take sips, and roll it around your tongue before swallowing. Note the flavors you detect, which can range from fruity hints like lemon and apricot, to earthier tones like grass or oak wood.

Classic Bourbon Whiskey Cocktails

Bourbon works really well in cocktails. From the Mint Julep to the Manhattan, the bourbon cocktail is sophisticated, strong, and flavorful. You can use any brand of bourbon you prefer—I've recently enjoyed the new Wild Turkey 81 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which was created specifically for mixing cocktails.

Mint Julep

A Beginner's Guide to Appreciating Bourbon Whiskey

The Mint Julep has been the drink of choice for the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. Although the earliest cocktails used rum or rye whiskey, bourbon has become the spirit of choice for this sweet and simple cocktail. 

This recipe yields 10 to 12 servings. You will need:

  • 4 cups bourbon
  • 2 bunches fresh spearmint
  • 1 cup distilled water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • Powdered sugar

The Old Fashioned

A Beginner's Guide to Appreciating Bourbon Whiskey

The Old Fashioned is created by muddling sugar with bitters, and then adding an alcohol like bourbon. A citrus rind completes the drink. 

This recipe keeps it simple and lets the bourbon shine. You'll need:

  • 2 ounces whiskey, rye or bourbon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ice cubes
  • 1 lemon twist
  • 1 orange slice
  • 1 maraschino cherry

The Manhattan

A Beginner's Guide to Appreciating Bourbon Whiskey

If you fancy yourself a devotee of the Mad Men-era, the Manhattan is for you. It was one of the first cocktails to incorporate vermouth, and it's rounded out with a dash of bitters.

This recipe only requires 4 ingredients:

  • 2 ounces straight rye or bourbon
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • Dash of Angostura bitters
  • 1 maraschino cherry

I've shared three recipes, but bourbon can be enjoyed in any number of ways. What are your favorite bourbon cocktails? Comment below.

Manhattan photo by Caroline on Crack

10 Comments

I enjoy bourbon best when somebody else is drinking it. (I'm more of a brewskie kind of guy.) But there are occasions when I use it, like straight with a cigar and when I'm losing money at the casino, or for making some steaks on the grill. But some of these recipes look good, so I'm probably going to try a few of them out and see what happens.

I agree, bourbon goes great with grilled meats. There's just something about bourbon and smoky meats that makes the combination irresistible.

Aha, now I know what a "finger" means.

you left out a couple essential classics - the old fashioned, bloody mary

FYI - the old fashioned is mentioned - it's the one right after the mint julep. I prefer Manhattans, myself. Great for sipping with the girls.

and a bloody mary is made with vodka. double fail

Is that last picture an Instagram photo..?

yes, looks like it. photo credit at the bottom.

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