A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon: Finding The Right Bourbon

bourbon tasting

Finding Your Perfect Match: A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon

A beginner’s guide to bourbon would not be complete without some caveats, tall tales and creative narrative. Okay, I primarily make sugarcane vodka presently, but I’m crazy about bourbon and always have been, as long as I can remember. At least as long ago as when I worked in my father’s liquor store when I was in my teens in Brooklyn, New York.

I have been asking the question, “how do I find the right bourbon for me?” I realized long ago, that the right bourbon to match your taste is not so simple, it takes time. And these days, sorting through the sea of bourbon brands and different expressions can get expensive very fast. I was in the business so I had a head start. I’ll show you how to get exposure to dozens of brands without getting your ass kicked (in the financial sense).

It’s OK to Like a Low-Cost Bourbon

I started out drinking Wild Turkey 80 proof in my 20’s and I still enjoy it today. And at $20 a bottle, it’s a blessing that it satisfies my bourbon fix on many occasions. That said, I’ve amassed thousands of dollars in bourbon on my bar. Drinking bourbon can be an expensive habit. That said, l urge you not to be seduced by very expensive bottles of bourbon. They rarely meet expectations. Today I saw a post on social media of someone asking $999 for an allocated bottle of bourbon that normally sells for no more than $99.

Welcome to the world of bourbon – a rich tapestry of flavors, traditions, and stories. If you’re new to this delightful spirit like I was long ago, you might find yourself asking, “How do I find the bourbon that’s right for me?” It’s a journey of taste and discovery, and we’re here to guide you through it. This article will help you understand the basics of bourbon, identify your flavor preferences, and keep track of your bourbon tasting experiences. So grab a glass, and let’s embark on this flavorful adventure together!

Bourbon is in a bit of a trendy phase which is marked by rising prices and a flood of producers entering the marketplace. Unfortunately, this means that there are a lot of inferior products crowding the market and making it more difficult to navigate the category.

Understanding Bourbon Basics

What Makes a Bourbon, a Bourbon?

Bourbon, often referred to as America’s native spirit, is more than just a whiskey – it’s a symbol of craftsmanship and tradition. To be called bourbon, the spirit must adhere to specific legal requirements. It must be made in the United States, primarily from corn (at least 51%), and aged in new, charred oak barrels. This unique combination of grains, known as the ‘mash bill,’ along with aging in charred barrels, gives bourbon its distinctive flavor and character.

An American Journey Through History

The history of bourbon is deeply entwined with American history, originating in the early days of the country and evolving over centuries. Bourbon’s journey from a humble corn spirit to an internationally celebrated drink is a testament to the ingenuity and passion of its makers.

Understanding these basics sets the foundation for your bourbon discovery. As you explore different bourbons, you’ll begin to appreciate how these elements come together to create a diverse range of flavors and aromas.

Understanding Government Designations in Bourbon

Navigating the Labels: Bottled in Bond and Barrel Strength

When exploring bourbons, you’ll encounter terms like “Bottled in Bond” and “Barrel Strength” on labels. Understanding these designations can enhance your appreciation and help in choosing a bourbon that suits your taste.

Bottled in Bond

  • Historical Significance: The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 was a quality assurance stamp. It guaranteed authenticity and integrity in bourbon production.
  • Requirements: For a bourbon to be labeled as Bottled in Bond, it must be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery. It must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume).
  • Flavor Profile: These bourbons offer a consistent, robust flavor profile. Ideal for those seeking a traditional, full-bodied bourbon experience.

Barrel Strength or Cask Strength

  • Meaning: Barrel Strength bourbons are bottled directly from the barrel, without dilution. This means a higher alcohol content and a more intense flavor profile.
  • Characteristics: They offer a pure, unadulterated taste of the bourbon as it is in the barrel, often with complex flavors and a richer texture.
  • Suitability: Perfect for experienced bourbon enthusiasts who appreciate a bold, strong whiskey. However, newcomers might also enjoy the depth of flavors, albeit cautiously.

These designations are not just labels; they are a nod to the rich history and strict standards that define the bourbon industry. As you encounter these terms, remember they are signposts guiding you towards unique bourbon experiences.

Exploring Bourbon Profiles

Unraveling the Mysteries of Bourbon Flavors: The foundation of the Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon

Proof: The Power Behind the Flavor

  • Proof refers to the alcohol content in the bourbon. A higher proof often means a more intense flavor and a warmer finish. Bourbons can range from 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) to over 120 proof. As a beginner, starting with lower proof bourbons might be more approachable, allowing you to savor the subtleties without the overpowering alcohol burn.

Mashbill: The Flavor Blueprint

  • Mashbill is the mixture of grains used to produce bourbon, and it’s pivotal in determining the final flavor profile.
    • Heavy Wheated: These bourbons replace the traditional rye grain with wheat, leading to a smoother, sweeter profile. Ideal for those who prefer a gentler, less spicy whiskey.
      • Maker’s Mark: One of the most famous wheated bourbons, Maker’s Mark is renowned for its smooth and approachable flavor profile. The absence of rye in the mash bill is replaced by soft winter wheat, which imparts a milder and sweeter taste.
      • W.L. Weller: Often referred to as the “original wheated bourbon,” W.L. Weller’s line of bourbons uses wheat as the secondary grain instead of rye. This gives their bourbons a softer, more rounded character, making them highly sought after among enthusiasts.
      • Larceny Bourbon: Produced by Heaven Hill, Larceny is a small batch bourbon that features a wheated mash bill. It’s known for its smooth, rich, and slightly sweet profile, with a balance of butterscotch and baking spices.
    • High Rye: Expect a spicy kick from these. High rye bourbons are known for their bold and complex flavors, a great choice if you enjoy a whiskey with a bit of edge.
      • Bulleit Bourbon: Renowned for its high rye content, Bulleit Bourbon offers a bold, spicy character that’s balanced with hints of sweet oak and caramel. The significant presence of rye in the mash bill makes it a favorite among those who enjoy a more robust and spicy flavor profile.
      • Four Roses Single Barrel: Four Roses is notable for its use of different yeast strains and mash bills. Their Single Barrel variant, which typically features a high rye content, is known for its complex, rich, and spicy flavors, making it a standout choice for rye enthusiasts.
      • Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style: This bourbon, part of the Old Forester Whiskey Row series, is crafted to mimic the style of bourbon during the Prohibition era. It’s characterized by a higher rye content, resulting in a robust and rich flavor with prominent notes of spice, caramel, and dark chocolate.
    • Barley Influenced: Often noted for their mellow and smooth characteristics, these bourbons are great for those who appreciate subtlety and soft malt undertones.
      • Woodford Reserve: Woodford Reserve is notable for its higher than usual barley content in the mash bill, contributing to its smooth, rich, and full-bodied profile. This bourbon is well-regarded for its complex layers of flavors, ranging from sweet aromatics to spicy undertones, all balanced by the nutty and slightly sweet influence of barley.
      • Basil Hayden’s: Basil Hayden’s bourbon, part of the Jim Beam small batch collection, is known for its high rye content, but it also features a notable presence of barley. This gives it a gentle, smooth, and slightly sweet profile, making it a great option for those who appreciate the unique character that barley brings to bourbon.
      • Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey: While not a traditional bourbon, Old Potrero, made by Anchor Distilling, is a rye whiskey that features a significant amount of malted barley. This inclusion imparts a distinctive smoothness and complexity to the whiskey, offering a different take on the typical rye whiskey flavor profile.

Aging and Storage Media: Time and Timber

  • The aging process in new, charred oak barrels is essential to bourbon’s character. Over time, the spirit absorbs compounds from the wood, adding colors and flavors like vanilla, caramel, and oak.
  • Finishing Barrels: Some bourbons undergo a finishing process in previously used barrels, such as port or sherry casks. This extra step can impart additional layers of flavor, often adding fruity, nutty, or rich undertones.

Tasting and Documenting Your Bourbon Journey

A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon: Savoring and Recording Your Bourbon Experiences

How to Taste Bourbon

  • Start with the Appearance: Observe the color. Darker hues often indicate longer aging.
  • Nose the Bourbon: Gently sniff to identify aromas. Look for common scents like vanilla, caramel, or oak.
  • The First Sip: Take a small sip and let it coat your palate. Notice the initial flavors.
  • The Finish: Pay attention to the aftertaste and how long it lingers.

Documenting Your Tasting Journey

To truly refine your bourbon palate, keeping a record of your tastings is invaluable. Here’s a simple way to make the most of this beginner’s guide to bourbon. Document your tasting experiences:

  1. Bourbon Name: Note the brand and specific variety.
  2. Date of Tasting: Helps track your journey over time.
  3. Proof and Mashbill: Record these details for reference.
  4. Aroma, Flavor, and Finish: Write down your impressions.
  5. Personal Rating: Use a scale of 1-5 or similar to rate your overall enjoyment.
  6. Notes: Any unique characteristics or how it compares to others.

Expanding Your Bourbon Horizons

Discovering and Enjoying a World of Bourbon Varieties

Expanding your bourbon horizons is a journey filled with delightful surprises. Here are some tips to guide you:

  1. Start with the Classics: Begin with well-known bourbons that exemplify the classic profiles. This gives you a baseline for comparison.
  2. Branch Out to Craft Bourbons: Once comfortable, explore offerings from smaller distilleries. They often bring unique twists to traditional bourbon making.
  3. Try Different Ages and Proofs: Experiment with bourbons of various ages and proofs to understand how these factors influence the taste.
  4. Attend Tastings or Bourbon Events: These are great opportunities to sample a variety of bourbons and learn from experts.
  5. Keep an Open Mind: Your palate will evolve, so something you didn’t enjoy initially might become a favorite over time.

Suggested Starter Bourbons:

  • For a Wheated Profile: [Brand A] – Known for its smooth, sweet notes.
  • For a High Rye Profile: [Brand B] – Offers a spicy kick with complex flavors.
  • For a Barley Influenced Profile: [Brand C] – A mellow and smooth bourbon, great for beginners.

Remember, the world of bourbon is vast and varied. Embrace the journey of discovering what resonates with your palate. Cheers to your bourbon adventures!