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A Beginner’s Guide To Drinking Bourbon

Are you interested in trying bourbon, but aren’t sure where to start? At its most basic, learning how to drink bourbon takes a little bit of curiosity and a sense of adventure.

Whether you’re a lifelong bourbon fan, an avid whiskey drinker or new to whiskey, bourbon is on the rise – this guide on how to drink bourbon by Rowan Gibb, South Africa Super Premium Ambassador for Woodford Reserve will help you on your way.

“There are certain ‘musts’ and basics when it comes to bourbon that you need to understand and it might take some time and practice to build your palate to appreciate the subtle nuances of the spirit,” says Gibb. “But getting the basics right will give you a multi-sensory experience.”

Not All Whiskey Is Bourbon

At its most basic, all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon, Gibb explains. “Firstly, for a whiskey to call itself bourbon, its mash bill (the mix of grains) must contain at least 51 percent corn, the rest is made of malted barley, rye or wheat and there are no additives like flavouring or colouring allowed, just pure water.”

Next is the location, this is everything. “For a whiskey to be called a bourbon, by law, it must be produced in the United States and it must be aged in brand-new, charred white oak barrels, and matured for more than two years,” he says.

Did you know? 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky? The reason for this, he says, is that the area is rich in limestone, which is used and needed to filter the water for the highest quality product.

Keep It Simple

“Woodford Reserve is more than a spirit. It’s a sensorial experience, not only how it tastes, or how it smells, makes you feel or just looks in a glass. It’s more than just a bourbon – it’s the world’s finest,” Gibb adds.

“The amber liquid is built around flavour and its staggering complexity comes as a result of a meticulous process described by Woodford Reserve as the ‘Five Source of Flavour’: grain, water, fermentation, distillation and maturation.”

Keep your choice uncomplicated, says Gibb, start with a straight bourbon whiskey like a Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. “Because it’s caramel forward, it picks up more sweet flavour from the charred oak, which I believe is a great introduction to bourbon and doesn’t break the bank.”

How To Drink It

Now onto how to drink it. Gibb explains that, with any spirit, there’s an opportunity to drink it anyway you like and drinking bourbon is no exception. “But to get the most out of the alluring liquid and to let the spirit’s natural characteristics shine, it’s best to serve it neat (with no water or ice whatsoever) otherwise known as straight – this can also be shaken or stirred with ice and then strained.”

If you really want to taste the bourbon and explore the flavour, he says, you need to use the correct glass. “The best way to bring out the richness of aromas and flavours is a tulip shaped glass or whiskey tumbler. The combined form and function of the glass is to deliver the ultimate taste experience. In fact, any simple glass with a wide brim is ideal to ‘nose’ the bourbon.”

Gibb advises that when you taste it, do it slowly. “First, waft it gently under your nose and then sip just a little and let it roll around your mouth, over your tongue and smack your lips, this is also known as the ‘Kentucky Chew.’ As you swallow, the bourbon will warm you up as it goes down – this is called the ‘Kentucky Hug.’”

Diluting and Mixing

If you’re drinking your bourbon ‘on the rocks’ or over ice, he explains, try adding larger cubes or ice spheres which will melt slower instead of watering it down which will adulterate some of the flavour. “Over ice can be a refreshing way to drink it especially if you’re new to bourbon.”

Some people believe that adding small amounts of water releases some of the flavours, however he says that is worth remembering that if you do add water to your drink, it will dilute the spirit and soften the punch of the alcohol, but he advises that adding a small dash of water will avoid diluting too much of the flavour.

Then there’s mixing, Gibb says, if you’ve had a cocktail made by a mixologist the chances are you’ve enjoyed bourbon in that cocktail. “Some of the most popular bourbon cocktails are an Old-Fashioned, Mint Julep or a Boulevardier and this spirit is a great base for a cocktail as the flavour is so diverse,” he adds.

“Lastly, remember that you don’t have to drink the rarest or most expensive bourbons to enjoy it and you don’t even have to drink it any other way than your own,” he explains. “Your willingness to try it and your appreciation of the fact that behind every bottle is years of talent and crafting already makes you an enthusiast.”

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