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Bourbon 101

Bourbon 101

Hi there. It's bourbon time.

If Scottish people get to call their whiskey "Scotch", then I don't see why we can't call bourbon "American". 

Let's start with some basic terms and buzzwords, so you don't feel like an idiot the first time you try buying some. This is by no means exhaustive, I'm just going to tell you the things I had to look up when I started drinking bourbon.

Proof: measurement of alcohol content. 100 proof = 50% alcohol. 

Barrel proof, or cask strength: it came out of the barrel this way (if it doesn't say barrel proof, it's had water added to bring it down to whatever the bottle says).

Single-barrel: costs more because it came from a single barrel instead of being blended from multiple barrels.

Small-batch: limited run, blended from a low number of barrels.

Age: time spent in the oak cask/barrel. While it's in the cask, the flavor changes, by virtue of the wood. Once it's in glass, it doesn't change. So when people say they have a really old bottle of bourbon, that means precisely nothing. Either they don't know what's going on, or they're hoping YOU don't. If it's still sealed, it's going to taste exactly the same as when it was bottled. If it's NOT sealed, it will have lost some of the flavor through evaporation. Bourbon is not wine. Also, un-aged bourbon in general is not something worth writing home about. If you are a Fancy Person with money you can buy a little oak cask, pour in a handle of your favorite whiskey, and age it as long as you'd like. 

Mash bill: the kinds of grain that the spirit is distilled from. Bourbon, by law, is 51% or more corn. You with me so far? 


1. Put the bourbon in a glass. A rocks glass or a shot glass is fine (but don't shoot it! We'll get to that later). At a bar? Ask for it neat. (Straight/straight up = shaken with ice and then strained, rocks = with ice in it. You don't want these.)

2. Hold the glass up to your mouth. Inhale like you're trying to smell through your open mouth. If you sniff high-proof alcohol through your nose, it's going to dull your palate to the flavors.  

3. Now you get to TASTE it. Sip, roll it back through your mouth, chew on it. At this point it's okay to take a little sniff from the glass, but go easy. Do this a few times. Top notes are what hits you immediately, middle notes as you are about to swallow, bottom notes are the taste left in your mouth. Every different bourbon comes with its own set of "notes" - tobacco, leather, fruit, smoke, caramel, etc. You need to try a few different bourbons (flights are fun, if you're out) and make up your own mind what it is you are tasting.

4. Thoroughly tasted that bourbon? Now here's a step you can skip if you're drinking anything under 90 proof. Still with me? Okay. Put a little piece of ice... and I mean a chip, really, into your glass. Swirl it around. Repeat step 3. Until the ice melts. Repeat step 3. If you're drinking quality liquor, the flavors will change with the addition of ice, and then again when the ice melts. If you're not an ice person, you can do a couple drops of water at a time instead.

People get mad about adding water and/or ice to very expensive whiskeys. Let's assume that you are drinking mid-range, higher-proof whiskey. We're okay. Adding water or ice to cheap whiskey just makes it worse, adding them to high-end whiskey is a bit of a waste IF YOU USE TOO MUCH. If you're adding only a drop or two of water at a time, or a small chip of ice, we're still okay. 

General bourbon tips and etiquette:

1. Don't shoot bourbon. Shots are for cheap liquor. The point is not tasting it and getting it down fast. Fancy shots with all kinds of mixed flavors that you can't taste because you're shooting it are designed to part you with your money. Save your money and buy better whiskey.

2. Anything under 80 proof (40% alcohol) just isn't worth drinking on its own.You can put them IN drinks, but it isn't THE drink. There are several good low-proof (80-90) bourbons. They'll be the cheaper ones on your bar's malt list. In terms of proof, the mid 90s to the mid 120s get a lot more interesting. At that level, you'll get more flavor, and it will hold up better to the addition of ice and/or water. Way better to enjoy one pour of upper shelf liquor than a few shots of something cheap.

3. Expensive isn't NECESSARILY better. Let's disregard bar pricing for the moment (it's arbitrary) and talk about bottles.
In the $20-$25 range, I like Wild Turkey 101 (101 proof. Steer clear of their 80, it's nasty) and Kirkland/Costco's private-label (103 proof - excellent neat AND in cocktails).

$30-$45? Elijah Craig (94 proof) - an excellent "starter" bourbon with tons of flavor. Woodford Reserve, while not the most flavorful, is widely available. Knob Creek has several varieties at various proofs and price-points. 

$50+? Bookers. Barrel proof can vary from lot to lot but it averages in the mid-120s. It is like a religious experience in a glass. You may weep.
Harder to find but very enjoyable is Noah's Mill (114 proof).

4. Strangers or vodka drinkers coming over? Take your nice bottles and HIDE THEM. I learned this the hard way. They can have the Costco bourbon. 

5. Tennessee whiskey is not bourbon. Under 80 proof? Not bourbon. Liquor labeled as bourbon, made in states other than Kentucky? Not technically bourbon. You  can get into semantics here, but I love Kentucky, and they have this sewn up. It's the water. You can look into it if you like. 

6. When in doubt, go with the higher proof. This is almost always going to guarantee you more flavor.

7. Make friends with someone who will let you taste their open bottles. This is not a cheap hobby. Be strategic. Ladies, if you're on a date, and he's paying? It's bourbon time. If he's intimidated by you drinking bourbon... maybe call it a night.

8. Your objective, in drinking at bars, is to sample a variety of whiskeys. Find one you love? Buy a bottle, drink the bottle at home, force all your friends to try it. Keep trying new things when you're out. 


Now - if after all this, you conclude bourbon isn't for you, that's okay, I'll be over here judging you silently, but it's fine, really.

If you DO forge on with drinking, or decide to venture into the world of making cocktails, here's some things worth splurging on.

Glencairn glasses. These are designed specifically for whiskey, and it's a great investment.

a shaker cup. With one of these and an ordinary pint glass, you can build great cocktails. Don't be messing around with a plastic thing with a screw-on lid. Please.

big ice cube tray. This is more for cocktails than for putting in your whiskey. Big ice cubes make a difference. You'll see. 

Lewis bag. You crush ice in this. With a rolling pin, or a muddler. You can also make one yourself if you happen to have a bit of thin canvas and a sewing machine.

Muddler. For crushing ice, for getting the essential oils out of citrus or herbs, for crushing fruit, for grinding herbs or fruit together with sugar in cocktails.

Cocktail strainer. After you've built and shaken your cocktail, you have to get it out of the shaker cup into the appropriate glass, and this keeps out all the bits and pieces of ice/herbs/fruit. 

Jigger/measuring cup. Glass is the way to go. I got the stainless one with two different size cups... guess what? It's a pain to wash and dry.

Cocktail spoon. You'll only need one in a lifetime. 

Fancy glassware for mixed drinks? Seriously - go to Goodwill. Go to your local thrift shop. You don't need a special zesting knife because if you're an adult human you probably already own knives. You do need a bottle opener/corkscrew that are easy to use for you - this shouldn't cost you more than a few bucks.

Now go on Youtube, look up how to make your favorite cocktail, and follow the instructions. You'll figure it out. Cheers.

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