“How can you possibly screw up drinking? Don’t you open your mouth and let the liquid flow down your throat?”
This is what my wife said to me when I tried to explain the proper way to drink bourbon.
It does sound silly to non-bourbon drinkers but ask an enthusiast that question and you may receive a hundred different answers.
Bourbon is in the eye of the beholder and everyone’s palate is different. In this article, I am not focusing on flavor as much as common mistakes that most bourbon connoisseurs make. Making a few changes may help enhance your bourbon-drinking experience.
Choosing the wrong glass.
What’s in a glass? More than you know. Ask any wine drinker if a pinot noir tastes different in a Chardonnay glass. The same goes for bourbon. Swirling, swishing and sipping are all part of the experience. Other glasses reveal little nuances of the whiskey, such as aromas and tastes.
How you are taking your bourbon dictates the glass you should choose.
Drinking “neat” requires a Glencairn-type Glass, which is tulip-shaped with a thin, flared rim so that the fragrances can escape easily.
The most popular whiskey glass is a rocks glass. It is a thick, wide-rimmed glass perfect for mixing and muddling cocktail ingredients. A highball glass is similar to rocks glasses but more narrow and taller. This glass works well with mixers like soda or ginger beer.
Not understanding the label.
In a previous article, “What is in a bourbon label and how to read it,” I explained that labels typically give you the age, state and brand. And, with these, you can easily lay hands on the dram of your liking and speak in-depth about the drink. A label can help decide whether this is a sipping or a mixing bourbon.
Terms such as single barrel, bottled-in-bond and straight bourbon will give a glimpse of what’s inside. These classifications tell you how bourbon was made, but beware: Some distilleries have overused labels like small batch and handcrafted. Both distinctions have no legal requirements and are used more as a marketing tactic.
Understanding the label will also help you identify flavors the distiller is trying to express; for example, bourbon finished in honey barrels. Remember: To be considered bourbon, the mixture must be aged in a newly charred oak barrel, but it can be finished in any other type of barrel.
Not using a correct measuring tool.
Too strong or weak can ruin any bourbon cocktail. That is why having and using the correct measuring tool is essential. A cocktail or Jigger is an hourglass-shaped measuring tool measuring 1.5 oz. on one side and 1 oz. on the other. A jigger can be purchased for less than $5 on Amazon. Different sizes are available, but I have found that a standard jigger is the best tool for the job.
Pouring straight from the bottle may look cool in movies but trust me. The inconsistencies are not worth it. Bourbon cocktails require consistency.
Fluctuations in taste can destroy a person’s perception of an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour. Stick to the script and use the amount of bourbon the recipe calls for unless the person requests more.
Ice or stones, the debate rolls on.
This debate will rage on long after I am gone. True believers only want ice from filtered or distilled water in their drinks. New-age drinkers believe that whiskey Stones are the way to go.
Dilution can negatively impact the taste. The stones do not have a flavor, or so say the new-age drinkers. The stones can be expensive, but when you have already spent $150 on the bottle, who cares?
True believers say that the minerals seep through and can leave an aftertaste. A sphere or large cube slows the dilution, preventing a watered-down drink.
Whichever you believe is fine, but beware, this topic is hotly debated among bourbon enthusiasts, so choose carefully.
Not letting the bourbon breathe.
Wine is not the only alcohol that needs to breathe. Bourbon also needs air. Letting your bourbon breathe has been scientifically proven to release more flavor and body to the whiskey.
Letting the bourbon sit for a few minutes allows the ethanol to evaporate. That evaporation allows more flavors to be accessible to the nose and palate.
Swirling and swishing release the alcohol molecules that may have clustered together, intensifying the flavor.
I have been told to let the whiskey breathe one minute for every year it has been in the cask. I advise sipping right after the pour and again every minute after that. See if there is a change; if not, it gives you an excuse to drink every minute.
Mixing too many ingredients.
There is nothing worse than too many ingredients; a cocktail that doesn’t let the authentic flavor of the bourbon shine through is terrible. One of my pet peeves is incorporating sweets into a bourbon drink.
Bourbon is already sweet; caramel, vanilla and brown sugars typically radiate through the liquid. This is my opinion; I know others will disagree and that’s okay.
A little goes a long way. Fruit purees and heavy syrups should stay as far away from good bourbon as possible. If you are trying to mask the taste, then go ahead. Use small amounts of citrus and sweeteners such as agave and flavored bitters to enhance the flavor.
Bourbon should be the star, not a supporting actor.
Taking bourbon as a shot.
Bourbon is not a shooter; please stop if you use it as one! In previous writing, “What’s in a sip?” I break down the best sipping bourbons for me. Sipping bourbon should be an experience and the sipping experience should be enjoyed slowly.
By swallowing bourbon in one gulp, you miss the nuances of the drink. Humans have between 5,000 and 10,000 tastebuds in the papillae and scattered on the roof of the mouth and the back of the throat. Experts explain that the best way to bring out the flavors is to take a small sip and roll the bourbon around your mouth. This action shocks the tastebuds and prepares them for the next sip. It is my experience that the first sip is dramatically different from the second for that very reason.
If you want to take a shot of something, shoot tequila, rum or vodka. Don’t shoot bourbon for the love of everything holy in Kentucky.
Not using food pairings or as an ingredient.
Food and bourbon go together like Mario and Luigi. Or, for the newer generation, Rick and Morty. Bourbon is versatile and pairs well with meats, cheeses and desserts.
The rule of thumb is the same as mixing ingredients: Do not overwhelm the palate. The flavors should complement or contrast each other. I recommend trying candied bacon for the sweetness and hot honey chicken for the bold flavor.
Aged cheese can bring out flavors that are usually hidden in the dram.
Some of my best steaks have been bourbon marinated, but I don’t use the cheap stuff. If it doesn’t taste good as a sip, it will not taste good on food. I am not saying to use the top-shelf stuff, but somewhere in the middle.
Try using bourbon to deglaze the pan and make a demi-glace or gravy. Chicken, ribs and some desserts are the perfect vessel for bourbon.
Storing bottles improperly.
There is nothing more important than proper storage of your bourbon bottles. Why spend thousands of dollars on whiskey for it to go bad due to improper storage?
Proper storage prolongs the flavor and it also protects your investment. Always store your unopened bottles of bourbon upright, keep them out of direct sunlight, and in a place that is temperature controlled. A wall-mounted Shelf keeps the bourbon away from any potential mishaps.
Opened bottles of bourbon will oxidize and lose their taste the longer they are opened. It is best to drink your bourbon within a few months of opening.
Decanters can help slow the oxidation but make no mistake: Pour it out if the bottle has gone bad.
Not using water.
If done correctly, H2O can take your bourbon drinking to a new level. But as in life, too much can be bad. Over-dilution can take away from what the distiller wants in their expression.
Not to get too scientific, but an aromatic oil named “guaiacol” gives bourbon its signature smokey flavor. Guaiacol is usually deep in the glass and since you should be using the proper glass, adding a bit of water moves the oil closer to the surface. This movement will enhance the smell and taste.
Will this move purists to use water? Probably not. But if you drink bourbon on the rocks, are you not already using water? Think about that!!!
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” – Alexander Pope.
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