Bourbon Tasting 101: How to Drink Bourbon the Right Way

April 21, 2023 | 4 min read

Learn how to drink bourbon the right way with our Bourbon Tasting 101 guide. From selecting the perfect glass to understanding flavor profiles, we'll show you everything you need to know to savor every sip of your favorite bourbon. Whether you're a seasoned bourbon drinker or a newbie, this guide will help you take your bourbon drinking experience to the next level.

A hand holding a whiskey glass

Bourbon is a popular whiskey that's enjoyed by many people around the world. Known for its rich flavor, smooth texture, and unique aroma, bourbon is a great spirit to enjoy on its own or in a cocktail.

However, to truly appreciate the beauty of bourbon, it's important to know how to drink it the right way. In this blog post, we'll cover everything you need to know about bourbon tasting, from selecting the right bottle to understanding flavor profiles and more.

Bourbon 101

An infographic describing the different types of bourbon

Bourbon is a unique type of whiskey that's distilled in the United States, primarily in Kentucky. To be considered bourbon, the whiskey must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Bourbon comes in different varieties based on the type of grains used in the mash bill, the aging process, and other factors.

Some of the most common types of bourbon include:

  • Traditional
  • High rye
  • Wheated
  • Straight
  • Bottled-in-bond
  • Small batch

Each type has its own unique characteristics and flavor profile, which can vary depending on the specific brand and aging process.

The popularity of bourbon has grown tremendously in recent years, and it's now enjoyed by people all over the world. Despite its popularity, many people don't know how to properly taste and appreciate bourbon. That's where this blog post comes in.

We'll cover all the basics of bourbon tasting, including selecting the right bottle, choosing the right glassware, understanding flavor profiles, and more.

Choose a Bourbon to Taste

Before you can taste bourbon, you need to select the right bottle. There are many different bourbon brands to choose from, and it can be overwhelming if you're not familiar with the different types.

Here are some things to consider when selecting bourbon:

  • Mash bill: Check the bourbon's mash bill to see what percentage of corn, rye, and barley is used in the recipe. This can affect the flavor and aroma of the bourbon.
  • Age: Bourbon that's been aged longer tends to have a smoother flavor and more complex aroma.
  • Proof: Bourbon comes in a variety of proofs, from 80 proof to over 140 proof. The higher the proof, the more intense the flavor and alcohol content.

If you're new to bourbon, it's recommended to start with lower proof bourbons that are around 85-95 proof. This can help you get accustomed to the flavors and aromas of bourbon without being overwhelmed by the alcohol content.

Additionally, you may want to try tasting the bourbon over ice, which can help dilute the bourbon and reduce the "Kentucky hug" or burn that some people experience when drinking bourbon neat.

Bourbon Tasting Tools

A man tasting a bourbon

Once you've selected your bourbon, it's time to gather the right tools for a proper bourbon tasting. Here are some of the tools you'll need:

  • Glassware: The right glassware is essential for properly tasting bourbon. A Glencairn glass or a tulip-shaped glass can help concentrate the bourbon's aroma and allow you to fully appreciate its flavor.
  • Water: Have a glass of water on hand to cleanse your palate between tastings.
  • Ice: If you prefer to drink bourbon on the rocks, have some ice cubes ready.
  • Tasting notes: Having a notepad and pen handy can help you keep track of the different flavors and aromas you experience during the tasting.

A Glencairn whiskey glass is ideal for tasting bourbon because its tapered mouth concentrates the aroma at the top, while its wider base allows for swirling and oxygenation, bringing out the full flavor profile and minimizing harsh alcohol vapors.

Step-by-step tasting

Tasting bourbon is a sensory experience that involves several steps to fully appreciate the flavors, aromas, and nuances of the whiskey. Here are the typical steps to tasting a bourbon:


Begin by examining the color of the bourbon in your glass. Hold it up to the light and take note of its hue, as well as any variations or inconsistencies in the color.


To smell the bourbon, first hold the glass at an angle and take a quick whiff of the bourbon from a short distance. Then, put your nose into the glass and take a deep breath in through your nose. Try to identify the different aromas that you smell, such as vanilla, caramel, oak, or spices.


Take a small sip of the bourbon and let it coat your tongue, allowing the flavors to unfold. Take note of the initial taste as well as any flavors that develop, such as vanilla, caramel, oak, or spice. Pay attention to the mouthfeel, including the body, texture, and weight of the whiskey in your mouth.


The finish is the final impression that the bourbon leaves in your mouth after you swallow. Take note of the length of the finish and any lingering flavors or sensations that you experience.


Adding a small amount of water to the bourbon can help open up the flavors and aromas, especially if the bourbon is high in proof. You can experiment with adding water to see how it affects the taste and aroma of the whiskey.

Overall, the key to tasting bourbon is to take your time, savor the flavors and aromas, and be mindful of the different sensations and impressions that the whiskey creates.

Understanding Bourbon Flavor Profiles

Bourbon has a diverse range of flavor profiles, ranging from sweet and fruity to spicy and smoky. Common profiles include vanilla from charred oak barrels, caramel from caramelized sugars, spices from rye or other grains, fruit from yeast fermentation, and smoke from charred oak barrels or peat smoke during malting.

Bourbon Cocktails

While bourbon is great on its own, it's also a versatile spirit that can be used in a variety of cocktails. Here are some popular bourbon cocktails to try:

  • Old Fashioned: This classic cocktail is made with bourbon, sugar, bitters, and a twist of orange or lemon. Check out our post on which bourbons make the best Old Fashioneds.
  • Mint Julep: This refreshing cocktail is made with bourbon, mint, sugar, and crushed ice.
  • Manhattan: This cocktail is made with bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters, and is typically garnished with a cherry.
  • Whiskey Sour: This cocktail is made with bourbon, lemon juice, and sugar, and is typically served over ice.

The Finish (Pun Intended)

Bourbon is a complex and delicious spirit that can be enjoyed in many ways. By following the tips and techniques outlined in this blog post, you'll be able to fully appreciate the beauty of bourbon and all its different flavor profiles.

Whether you prefer it neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, there's a bourbon out there that's perfect for you. So go ahead and explore the wonderful world of bourbon!

Getting started in the bourbon community? Find any bottle for the best price by checking Bourbon Bear. It's the only way to find and report bottles available in liquor stores around you.