Last Updated on November 26, 2023 by Lydia Martin
Bourbon is more than just a whiskey. It’s a symbol of American heritage and craftsmanship and a testament to the art of distilling.
But when it comes to enjoying this smooth spirit, there is often confusion over the best way to indulge.
Some say you should take it as a shot, while others argue that sipping is the only way to truly appreciate its complex flavors. So, are you supposed to sip bourbon?
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the history of bourbon, what makes it unique, and why sipping is the preferred method of consumption for many bourbon aficionados.
The History of Bourbon
How did bourbon come to be?
The origins of bourbon are a bit murky, but it is believed to have evolved from the whiskey-making traditions of Scottish and Irish immigrants who settled in the American South in the 18th century.
These settlers brought with them the knowledge and skills of distilling, which they used to create whiskey from the abundant grains that grew in the region.
Over time, the local distillers began experimenting with different grains and techniques. Eventually, bourbon emerged as a distinct type of whiskey.
The name “bourbon” is believed to have come from Bourbon County, Kentucky, which was a major center of whiskey production in the early days of the United States. 
However, the exact origins of the name are uncertain, and there are several theories about how it came to be associated with this type of whiskey.
The unique flavors of bourbon
What makes bourbon different from other whiskeys?
Bourbon’s unique characteristics are a result of its production regulations, which set it apart from other types of whiskey. Here’s a list of the key differences between them:
- Bourbon, especially high rye bourbon, must be comprise of grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, while other whiskeys may be made from different types of grains, such as rye, barley, or wheat.
- Bourbon must be aged in new, seared oak barrels, which gives it a distinctive flavor and color. Other whiskeys may be aged in used barrels or barrels made from different types of wood.
- Bourbon is produced exclusively in the United States, while other types of whiskey may be made in other countries.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (ABV), while other whiskeys may be distilled to higher ABV levels.
- Bourbon is subject to strict regulations that dictate how it must be produced, while other whiskeys may not be subject to the same level of regulation.
What are the unique flavors of bourbon?
Bourbon is known for its unique flavors, which vary depending on factors such as the mash bill, aging process, and distillation techniques. Some common flavors found in bourbon include:
- Caramel and vanilla: These flavors come from the charred oak barrels in which bourbon is aged and are often described as sweet and smooth.
- Oak: Bourbon has a distinct oak flavor due to the fact that it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
- Spice: Bourbon can have spicy notes such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, which come from the grain mixture and yeast used during production.
- Fruit: Some bourbons have fruity flavors such as cherry, apple, or peach, which can come from the grain mixture, yeast, or barrel aging.
- Smoke: A smoky flavor can be present in some bourbons due to the charred barrels and the aging process.
- Corn: Since bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, it often has a distinct corn flavor that is sweet and slightly nutty.
- Leather and tobacco: These flavors can come from the charred oak barrels and the aging process, giving some bourbons a more complex flavor profile.
The etiquette of drinking bourbon
What are some common misconceptions about how to drink bourbon?
It’s important to understand the facts about how to drink bourbon to truly appreciate this beloved American whiskey. However, there are several common misconceptions that can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, including:
- Bourbon should only be served neat or on the rocks: One common misconception is that wheated bourbon should only be served either neat or on the rocks. However, this is a matter of personal preference, and there are many delicious bourbon cocktails that are worth trying, such as a Mint Julep or an Old Fashioned.
- The higher the price, the better the bourbon: While some expensive bourbons may be of high quality, price is not always an indicator of taste or quality. Many excellent bourbons are available at a range of price points, and it is important to taste and experiment to find the bourbons that suit your palate and preferences. The price of bourbon can be affected by factors such as rarity, age, and marketing.
- Adding water to bourbon will ruin the flavor: Adding a few drops to bourbon whiskey can help open up the flavors and aromas. It can help release the volatile compounds responsible for the aroma and taste of the bourbon.
- Bourbon should only be sipped slowly: While it is true that bourbon is meant to be sipped and savored, no rule says it has to be consumed slowly. You can enjoy bourbon at your own pace, whether that means sipping it slowly or drinking it more quickly.
- Bourbon should always be served in a traditional whiskey glass: While a traditional whiskey glass can be a great way to enjoy bourbon, it is not the only option. Experimenting with different types of glassware can actually enhance the flavors and aromas of the bourbon.
- Bourbon should only be enjoyed by itself and not paired with food: Bourbon can be a great accompaniment to food, especially with dishes with a similar flavor profile. For example, a bold and spicy bourbon can be paired with barbecue ribs, hearty chili, or bourbon chicken.
- Mixing bourbon with cola or other sodas is the best way to enjoy it: While mixing bourbon with cola or other sodas can be a popular way to consume it, it is not the only option. Mixing bourbon with other ingredients, such as ginger beer, fruit juices, or sweet vermouth, can create a delicious and refreshing bourbon cocktail.
- Bourbon is too strong to be enjoyed by women: This is a common misconception, as anyone can enjoy bourbon regardless of gender. In fact, many women are avid bourbon drinkers and enjoy the complex flavors and aromas that it offers.
- The older the bourbon, the better it tastes: While aging can undoubtedly enhance the flavors and aromas of bourbon, it is not necessarily true that the older the bourbon, the better it tastes. The taste of bourbon is affected by a variety of factors, including the mash bill, barrel type, and aging conditions.
- Bourbon should only be enjoyed in the South: While bourbon is often associated with the American South, it can be enjoyed anywhere in the world. In fact, bourbon has gained popularity all over the globe, with many countries producing their own versions of this beloved spirit.
What is the proper way to sip bourbon?
The proper way to sip bourbon involves several key steps that allow you to fully appreciate the flavors and aromas of this complex spirit, such as :
- Choose the right glass: Bourbon should be sipped from a tulip-shaped old fashioned glass or a Glencairn glass, which will help concentrate the aromas of the bourbon.
- Pour the right amount: Pour about an ounce or two of bourbon into the glass. This will allow you to fully experience the flavors and aromas without overwhelming your senses.
- Observe the color: Take a moment to observe the color of the bourbon. The color can give you an indication of the age and flavor profile of the bourbon.
- Smell the bourbon: Hold the glass up to your nose before taking a sip and take a deep breath. This will allow you to fully experience the aromas of the bourbon.
- Take a sip: Swirl the glass to release the aroma, then take a small sip of the bourbon and let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds. This will allow you to fully experience the flavors of the bourbon.
- Add water if desired: If the bourbon is too strong for your taste, you can add some drops of water to the glass. This will help to open up the flavors and aromas of the bourbon.
- Sip slowly: Sip the bourbon slowly and savor each sip. This will allow you to fully experience the complex flavors and aromas of the bourbon.
- Enjoy with friends: Bourbon is best enjoyed with friends and family. Share your favorite bottles and discuss the flavors and aromas that you are experiencing.
What are the other ways to drink bourbon?
Aside from sipping bourbon neat, on the rocks, or with a small amount of water, there are several other ways to enjoy this versatile spirit. Here are some common methods:
- Straight bourbon: Sipping bourbon neat, without any mixers or ice, is a great way to appreciate its unique flavors.
- Bourbon with ice cubes: Adding a few ice cubes to bourbon can help mellow out the flavors and make it more refreshing.
- Bourbon cocktails: Bourbon is a popular base spirit for many classic and modern cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Whiskey Sour.
- Bourbon and branch: This simple drink is made by mixing bourbon with ginger ale, lemon-lime soda, or another flavored soda.
- Bourbon and iced tea: Also known as the “Kentucky Tea,” this drink combines bourbon with iced tea and a splash of lemon juice.
- Bourbon and apple cider: This cozy fall drink combines bourbon with apple cider and warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
- Bourbon and coffee: Bourbon can be added to coffee for a boozy and warming morning pick-me-up.
- Bourbon flights: A bourbon flight consists of three or more different bourbons served in small tasting glasses, allowing drinkers to compare and contrast flavors.
- Bourbon infusions: Bourbon can be infused with different flavors by adding fruits, herbs, or spices to the bottle and letting it sit for a period of time.
The benefits of sipping bourbon
How does sipping enhance the experience of drinking bourbon?
Sipping is a key part of the bourbon-drinking experience and can enhance the enjoyment of the drink in several ways. Here are some of the ways sipping enhances the experience of drinking bourbon:
- Sipping allows you to taste the complex flavors and aromas in the bourbon. By taking small sips and holding the bourbon in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, you can fully appreciate the depth and complexity of the flavors.
- Sipping slows the drinking process, allowing you to savor the bourbon and enjoy it for longer. This is particularly important with high-quality bourbons that are meant to be savored slowly.
- Sipping encourages moderation, preventing you from drinking too much too quickly and becoming intoxicated. By sipping slowly and deliberately, you can enjoy the taste and effects of the bourbon without overdoing it.
What are some tips for savoring bourbon and detecting its unique flavors?
Enjoying bourbon to its fullest involves savoring its unique flavors. To do so, there are several tips that can help you detect and appreciate the distinct notes and characteristics of most bourbons:
- Use a tulip-shaped or rocks glass: This will help concentrate the bourbon’s aromas and allow you to better appreciate its flavors.
- Take small sips: Sipping small amounts of bourbon will allow you to appreciate its unique flavors upon tasting bourbon without overwhelming your palate.
- Add a drop of water: Adding a small amount of water can help to open up the flavors of the bourbon and make it easier to detect subtle notes.
- Hold the bourbon in your mouth: Swirling it in your mouth will help spread it across your tongue and activate all of your taste buds.
- Pay attention to the finish: The finish is the aftertaste that remains in your mouth after you swallow the bourbon. Pay attention to how long it lasts and what flavors you can detect.
- Compare bourbons: Tasting different bourbons side-by-side can help you to appreciate their unique flavors and identify subtle differences between them.
- Take your time: Savoring bourbon is a slow and deliberate process. Take your time and allow yourself to fully appreciate each sip.
Is bourbon good to sip?
Bourbon is considered a sipping whiskey, meaning it is designed to be enjoyed slowly and savored.
Many bourbon enthusiasts appreciate the complexity of its flavors and aromas and enjoy exploring the nuances of different brands and aging processes.
However, like any alcoholic beverage, it should be consumed in moderation and in a responsible manner.
How are you supposed to drink bourbon?
Bourbon can be enjoyed in various ways depending on personal preference.
However, drinking bourbon by sipping it slowly is generally recommended to appreciate its unique flavors and aromas.
Adding a small amount of water or ice can also enhance the drinking experience.
Why do you sip bourbon?
People typically sip bourbon to fully appreciate its flavors and complexity. Unlike other alcoholic beverages that are often consumed quickly or mixed with other ingredients, sipping bourbon allows for a more deliberate and focused tasting experience.
Individuals can better detect the various flavors and aromas in the spirit by taking small sips and allowing the bourbon to linger on the palate.
Additionally, sipping the spirit is often seen as a more sophisticated and refined way to drink bourbon, as it allows for a deeper appreciation of its history and craftsmanship.