Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Lydia Martin
“How can you tell if bourbon is good?” It’s a question that’s plagued me since the first time I took a sip of this complex and delicious spirit.
As a self-proclaimed bourbon enthusiast, I’ve tried everything from the most expensive bottles to the hidden gems tucked away on liquor store shelves.
And yet, I still find myself wondering: what separates the good from the great? Well, I’m here to tell you that the answer is not what you might expect.
So, buckle up and get ready to take a journey through the world of bourbon as we uncover the secrets of this beloved drink and discover how to truly tell if bourbon is good or not.
What is bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn and aged in seared oak barrels.
It must be refined to no more than 80% ABV, barreled at no more than 62.5% ABV, and bottled atleast 40% ABV.
Bourbon is typically produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky, although it can be made anywhere in the United States.
It is known for its smooth, sweet flavor profile, which comes from the combination of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley grains used in its production, as well as the unique characteristics of the oak barrels it is aged in.
Why is it important to know how to tell if bourbon is good?
It is important to know how to tell if bourbon is good because the quality of the bourbon affects the taste and overall drinking experience.
Good bourbon can provide a rich, complex flavor profile that is enjoyable to sip on its own or use as a base for famous bourbon cocktails. 
On the other hand, bad bourbon can be harsh, unbalanced, and unpleasant to drink.
Additionally, good bourbon tends to be more expensive than lower-quality options, so being able to identify a good bourbon can help you get the most value for your money.
Knowing how to tell if bourbon is good also allows you to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry involved in its production and can enhance your overall enjoyment of this beloved American spirit.
What can you tell about bourbon from its color?
The color of bourbon can tell you some things about its flavor profile and potential age:
- Lighter color: Bourbons that are lighter in color typically have a milder flavor and are usually younger. They may have vanilla, caramel, and oak notes but with less intensity than darker bourbons. This is because they spend less time in the barrel, which means they have less exposure to the wood’s flavors.
- Darker color: Bourbons that are darker in color are typically older and have a more complex flavor profile. They may have dark chocolate, toffee, and dried fruit notes, along with the vanilla, caramel, and oak notes found in lighter bourbons. The darker color usually results from spending more time in the barrel, which allows the bourbon to pick up more of the barrel’s flavor and color.
It’s worth noting that the color of bourbon can also be affected by factors such as the char level of the barrel and the type of wood used to make the barrel.
However, in general, the color can be a good indicator of the bourbon’s flavor profile and age.
What are the key aromas to look for in a good bourbon?
Assessing the aroma of bourbon is crucial to understanding its flavor profile and overall quality.
When evaluating a bourbon, it’s important to take note of certain aromas that can indicate its level of quality.
Here are some key aromas to keep an eye out for:
- Vanilla: Vanilla is a common aroma found in many bourbons, and it can provide a sweet and smooth flavor to the spirit. High-quality bourbons often have a strong vanilla aroma that is well-balanced with other flavors.
- Caramel: Caramel is another aroma commonly found in bourbons, and it can provide a rich and smooth sweetness to the spirit. Good quality bourbons often have a subtle caramel aroma that is not overpowering.
- Oak: Bourbon is typically aged in oak barrels, which can impart a woody and spicy aroma to the spirit. A good bourbon should have a balanced oak aroma that complements the other flavors in the spirit.
- Fruit: Some bourbons, such as apple or cherry, may have a fruity aroma. A good bourbon should have a natural and balanced fruit aroma that does not overpower the other flavors in the spirit.
- Spice: Some bourbons, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, may have a spicy aroma. A good bourbon should have a well-balanced spice aroma that enhances the overall flavor profile of the spirit.
What flavors should you expect to find in a good bourbon?
You can expect to find a complex and balanced mix of flavors in a good bourbon. Some of the most common flavors found in bourbon include:
- Vanilla: The flavor of vanilla is commonly found in bourbon due to the use of a charred oak barrel during the aging process. This flavor is often described as sweet, creamy, and sometimes even spicy.
- Caramel: Caramel is another common flavor in bourbon, created by the caramelization of sugars in the barrel during aging. It adds a rich, sweet taste to the spirit.
- Oak: As previously mentioned, the use of oak barrels is a crucial element of the bourbon-making process. The oak imparts flavors of wood, tannins, and sometimes even a hint of smoke.
- Spice: Bourbon can have a spicy kick to it, with flavors such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. This spiciness can be influenced by the mash bill used in the distilling process and the aging environment.
- Fruit: Depending on the brand, you might taste bourbon with notes of dried fruit, citrus, or even dark fruit like blackberries or cherries.
- Butterscotch: Butterscotch is a common flavor in bourbon that gives the spirit a rich, creamy sweetness.
- Chocolate: Some bourbons have a hint of chocolate flavor, which can be described as rich, smooth, and slightly bitter.
- Honey: The flavor of honey is sometimes present in bourbon, adding a sweet and floral note to the spirit.
- Nutty: Some bourbons have a nutty flavor, with notes of almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans.
- Leather: This might not sound like a desirable flavor, but leather notes in bourbon can add complexity and depth to the spirit, often described as earthy or woody.
How can you tell if a bourbon has a good finish?
One of the key factors in determining the quality of bourbon is its finish, which refers to the taste and sensations that linger after swallowing.
A good finish should be smooth, balanced, and pleasant, with flavors that complement and enhance the overall drinking bourbon experience.
Here are some indicators that bourbon has a good finish :
- Length: A good finish will last for a considerable amount of time. A longer finish generally indicates a higher quality bourbon.
- Smoothness: A good finish should be smooth and not too harsh. A rough finish can indicate poor quality or an imbalance of flavors.
- Complexity: A good finish should have layers of flavor that develop and evolve over time. A lack of complexity can indicate a simpler, lower-quality bourbon.
- Balance: A good finish should be well-balanced, with all the flavors working together harmoniously. An imbalanced finish can indicate poor quality or poor aging.
- Coherence: A good finish should be consistent with the overall flavor profile of the bourbon rather than feeling like a separate and disjointed element.
- Aftertaste: A good finish should leave a pleasant aftertaste that lingers on the palate. A bad aftertaste can indicate poor quality or an unbalanced bourbon.
Age and Price
What role do age and price play in determining the quality of a bourbon?
Age and price are two factors that can influence the quality of bourbon, but they are not the only factors to consider.
Here are some other factors that can impact the quality of bourbon:
- Age: Bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years, but many high-quality bourbons are aged for much longer. Generally, the longer a bourbon is aged, its flavors become complex and nuanced. However, age is not always an indicator of quality, as many well-crafted younger bourbons exist.
- Price: Price is often used as a shorthand for quality, but it is not always a reliable indicator. Some high-priced bourbons are exceptional, but there are also many great bourbons at more affordable prices. It is important to evaluate a bourbon based on its flavor profile rather than its price tag.
- Mash bill: The mash bill, or the blend of grains used in the bourbon’s production, can significantly affect its flavor profile.
- Barrel type: The type of barrel used to age the bourbon can impact its flavor and color. Charred oak barrels are the most common type used for aging bourbon, but barrels made of different kinds of wood can also be used.
- Proof: The proof of a bourbon refers to the alcohol content. A higher-proof bourbon may have a stronger flavor and aroma than a lower-proof bourbon.
- Distillation method: The method used to distill the bourbon can also affect its flavor and quality. Some bourbons are distilled using a pot still, while others are distilled using a column still.
- Brand reputation: The reputation of the brand can also influence the perceived quality of a bourbon. Some brands have a long history and tradition of producing high-quality bourbon, while others may be relatively new to the market.
- Personal preference: The quality of bourbon is subjective and depends on personal taste and preference. What one person considers a high-quality bourbon may not be the same for someone else.
How do you judge a bourbon?
Judging a bourbon requires considering several factors that affect its overall quality and flavor profile.
Here are some of the main factors to keep in mind when selecting an unopened bottle of bourbon:
Take a whiff of the bourbon and note any aromas that stand out to you. Look for a balanced, pleasant aroma that doesn’t overpower.
As you drink bourbon, pay attention to the flavors present. Look for a complex flavor profile that is well-balanced and not dominated by one particular flavor.
After swallowing the bourbon, note the finish or aftertaste. A good bourbon should have a pleasant finish that lingers without being too harsh or bitter.
Consider the texture and weight of the bourbon in your mouth. A good bourbon should have a smooth and full-bodied mouthfeel.
Look for a bourbon that has a good balance of all the above factors. A well-balanced bourbon should have all the components working together harmoniously.
Consider the age of the bourbon, as it can impact the overall quality and flavor profile.
While not always an indicator of quality, the price can be a consideration when judging a bourbon.
How do you pick a good bottle of bourbon?
When purchasing a bourbon bottle, there are several factors to consider that can help you find one that matches your taste and preferences.
Here are some tips to keep in mind to ensure you select a good bottle of bourbon:
Set a budget
Determine how much you are willing to spend on a bottle of bourbon. Prices vary widely, so having a budget can help narrow your options.
Look up reviews from trusted sources, such as whiskey bloggers or publications, to get an idea of what bourbons are highly recommended.
Consider the age
While age doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, it can be a factor in determining the flavor and complexity of a bourbon.
Consider whether you prefer younger or older bourbons, and look for bottles that fit your preference.
Look at the mash bill
The mash bill, which is the combination of grains used in the bourbon’s recipe, can affect its flavor profile.
Determine what type of mash bill you prefer, such as high-rye or wheated, and look for bourbons that fit that style.
Check the proof
Bourbon can range in proof from 80 to over 140. Consider what proof you prefer and look for bottles that match your preference.
Visit a specialty store
Specialty liquor stores often have a wider selection of bourbons and knowledgeable staff who can help guide you in your selection.
Tasting bourbon through events can be a great way to sample different bourbons and determine what you like. Look for tastings at local bars, restaurants, or distilleries.
When picking a good bottle of bourbon, it is also important to consider how you will store it. Bourbon is a delicate spirit that can be affected by exposure to light, heat, and air.
To ensure longevity and quality, store bourbon in a cool, dark place and avoid fluctuations in temperature.
An example of a good bourbon to consider is the Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
This bourbon is known for its smooth, rich flavor and has been in charred oak barrels for six years.