Last Updated on December 16, 2023 by Lydia Martin
As a bourbon enthusiast, I’m always searching for the best way to enjoy my favorite spirit. And while some might argue that bourbon should always be served neat, I’ve found myself wondering if chilling it might enhance the drinking experience.
After all, a cold glass of water can be refreshing on a hot day, so why not bourbon? But is it sacrilege to put ice in such a beloved drink?
Join me as I explore the debate over whether bourbon should be neat or chilled and try to determine once and for all which is the better way to enjoy this iconic American whiskey.
What is bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, thus the term “bourbon whiskey,” that is made from a mash of at least 51% corn, along with other grains such as rye, wheat, or barley.
It must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (ABV) and matured in new, seared oak barrels for at least two years.
Bourbon is typically amber in color and has a distinctively sweet, vanilla flavor profile that comes from the oak barrels.
What are the different ways to drink bourbon?
Bourbon is a versatile spirit that can be enjoyed in different ways, depending on personal preference and the occasion. Here are some of the most common ways to drink bourbon :
- Neat: This is the most traditional and pure way to enjoy bourbon. Drinking it neat means you’re savoring the spirit on its own without adding mixers, ice, or water. This allows you to fully value the flavor and aroma profile of the bourbon.
- On the rocks: Adding ice to bourbon is a popular way to chill the spirit and mellow out its flavors. However, this method can dilute the bourbon and mask some of its flavors, so it’s not recommended for high-end or complex bourbons.
- With a splash of water: Adding a few drops of water to bourbon can open up the flavors and aromas of the spirit, making it easier to detect the different notes. This method is particularly effective for high-proof bourbons.
- In cocktails: Bourbon is a common ingredient in a variety of classic cocktails, such as the Irish Whiskey Sour, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Mint Julep. These bourbon cocktails typically combine bourbon with other ingredients such as ginger ale, sugar, bitters, and fruit.
- With food: Bourbon can also be enjoyed alongside food, as it pairs well with a variety of dishes. This includes everything from barbeque and grilled meats to chocolate desserts and strong cheeses.
Why is the serving temperature of bourbon debated?
The serving temperature of bourbon is debated because different temperatures can affect the taste buds, aroma, and overall drinking experience of the spirit.
Some people prefer to drink bourbon neat or at room temperature, believing that it allows the full range of flavors and scents to be appreciated.
Others prefer to chill their bourbon with ice or by storing the bottle in the fridge, believing that the cold temperature can smooth out the alcohol burn and make it more refreshing.
However, some argue that chilling bourbon can mask or diminish its flavors and aromas and that it should be served neat to fully appreciate its complexities.
What does “neat” mean?
“Neat” is a term used to describe a way of serving bourbon, which means that it is served at room temperature and without any mixers, ice, or water. 
When bourbon is served neat, it is typically poured into an old-fashioned glass and sipped slowly, allowing the full range of flavors and aromas to be appreciated.
This is often considered the most traditional and pure way to enjoy bourbon, as it provides the spirit to be tasted exactly as it was intended by the distiller.
What are the benefits of drinking bourbon neat?
Drinking bourbon neat has several benefits that go beyond just savoring the flavor profile of the spirit. Here are some of the key benefits of drinking bourbon neat:
- No dilution: When you drink straight bourbon neat, you’re not adding any water, ice, or mixers to the spirit. This means that you get to taste the bourbon in its purest form without diluting its flavor or strength.
- Full flavor appreciation: One of the primary benefits of drinking bourbon neat is the ability to fully appreciate the complex flavor profile of the spirit. By drinking it without any other ingredients, you can pick up on the vanilla, caramel, oak, heat, and spice notes that may be muted by mixers or dilution.
- Better for tasting: If you’re interested in exploring different bourbons or becoming a bourbon connoisseur, drinking whiskey neat is the best way to do so. It allows you to fully appreciate the various nuances of each spirit and compare them to one another, making it easier to identify your favorite types of bourbon.
- Traditional and pure: Drinking bourbon neat is often considered the most traditional and pure way to enjoy the spirit, as it allows you to taste the bourbon exactly as it was intended by the distiller.
- No interference from mixers: When you add mixers or ice to bourbon, it can mask the natural flavors of the spirit. Drinking it neatly allows you to experience the full range of flavors and aromas without any interference from mixers or other ingredients.
How does serving bourbon neat affect the taste, aroma, and finish of the spirit?
Serving bourbon neat, meaning without any added mixers, ice, or water, can significantly impact the taste, aroma, and finish of the spirit.
Here are some of the ways serving bourbon neat can affect the sensory experience:
- Taste: Drinking bourbon neatly allows you to taste the full range of flavors present in the spirit. Without any dilution or masking from other ingredients, you can appreciate the bourbon’s unique combination of sweetness, spiciness, and oakiness.
- Aroma: The aroma of bourbon can be just as complex and varied as its taste. Serving bourbon neat allows you to fully appreciate the range of scents, from caramel and vanilla to leather and tobacco.
- Finish: The finish of bourbon refers to the lingering aftertaste left in your mouth after you’ve taken a sip. Drinking bourbon neat allows you to fully experience the finish, ranging from a smooth buttery sensation to a spicy and lingering burn.
What types of bourbons are best enjoyed neat?
While the best bourbon to drink neat ultimately depends on personal preference, here are a few types of bourbons that are often enjoyed neat:
- Single barrel: Bourbons that are bottled from a single barrel can have unique flavor profiles, making them an interesting choice to enjoy neat.
- Small batch: Bourbons that are made in small batches can often have more complex flavor profiles, which can be appreciated when enjoyed neat.
- Barrel proof: Bourbons that are bottled at a high proof level, often called barrel proof or cask strength, can be enjoyed neat to fully appreciate the full strength and complexity of the spirit.
- Aged: Bourbons that have been aged for longer periods in charred oak barrels can have more developed flavor profiles, making them well-suited for enjoying the spirit neat.
- Wheated: Wheated bourbons, which are made with wheat as the secondary grain instead of rye, can have a smoother, sweeter taste profile that can be appreciated when enjoyed neat.
What are the different ways to chill bourbon?
Chilling bourbon is a popular way to mellow out the flavors of the spirit and make it more refreshing on a hot day. Here are some of the most common ways to chill bourbon:
- Ice: Adding ice to bourbon is the most common way to chill the spirit. You can use ordinary ice cubes or make large ones with a special mold to prevent dilution. However, keep in mind that ice can dilute the bourbon and mask some of its flavors.
- Whiskey Stones: Whiskey stones are small, reusable cubes made from non-porous materials like soapstone or stainless steel. You chill them in the freezer and then add them to your bourbon to keep it cold without diluting it.
- Chilled Glass: Another way to chill bourbon is to chill the glass itself. You can do this by placing the glass in the freezer for a few minutes before pouring the bourbon.
- Cold Water: You can also chill bourbon by adding a splash of cold water to the spirit. This can help open up the bourbon flavors and make it more refreshing.
What are the benefits of chilling bourbon?
Chilling bourbon is a popular method of drinking the spirit, and it can offer several benefits to the drinking experience.
Here are some of the ways that chilling bourbon can enhance the enjoyment of the spirit:
- Mellowing the flavor: Chilling bourbon can mellow out some of the more intense or harsh flavors of the spirit, making it easier to drink for those who might find the taste of bourbon overpowering. The lower temperature can also tone down any alcoholic burn, allowing the drinker to appreciate the more subtle nuances of the bourbon’s flavor profile.
- Refreshing on a hot day: Drinking chilled bourbon can be an especially refreshing way to cool down on a hot day. Sipping a chilled bourbon can provide a cool and refreshing experience, especially when served with ice or whiskey stones.
- Reducing the burn: Many people find that drinking chilled bourbon is less harsh on the throat and mouth, resulting in less of a burn going down than room temperature bourbon. This can be particularly helpful for those who are sensitive to the high alcohol content of bourbon.
- Changing the aroma: The temperature of bourbon can significantly impact the aroma of the spirit. Chilling bourbon can alter the scent, making it less pungent and more subtle, which can be especially enjoyable for those who might find the strong aroma of room-temperature bourbon off-putting.
- Non-diluting: Chilling bourbon using methods such as whiskey stones or chilling the glass itself can keep the bourbon cold without diluting it with water or melting ice cubes. This allows the boozer to enjoy the full flavor of the bourbon without any additional dilution, making it a great choice for those who prefer their bourbon undiluted.
How does serving bourbon chilled affect the taste, aroma, and finish of the spirit?
Serving bourbon chilled can significantly impact the taste, aroma, and finish of the spirit. Here are some of the ways that chilling bourbon can alter the sensory experience of the drink:
- Temperature: Chilling bourbon can lower the temperature of the spirit, making it less harsh and easier to drink. It can also bring out different flavors that may not be as noticeable at room temperature.
- Aroma: The aroma of bourbon can be altered when served chilled. When the spirit is chilled, the volatile compounds that contribute to its aroma are less noticeable. This can result in a milder aroma, which may be preferable to those who find the strong scent of bourbon overpowering.
- Flavor: The flavor of bourbon can also be altered when served chilled. Lowering the temperature of the spirit can make bourbon tastes smoother and more mellow, with less of a harsh, alcoholic burn. This can allow the drinker to appreciate the subtler flavors and nuances of the bourbon, such as vanilla, caramel, and oak.
- Finish: The finish of the bourbon, which refers to the lingering taste and sensation in the mouth after swallowing, can also be affected by chilling. Chilled bourbon can have a shorter finish, with less of a burn or warmth in the throat, which some people may prefer.
The Debate: Neat vs. Chilled Bourbon
Should Bourbon be Neat or Chilled?
The question of whether bourbon should be served neat or chilled is primarily a matter of personal preference.
Drinking bourbon neat allows you to appreciate the full range of flavors and aromas while chilling can enhance certain flavor notes and reduce harshness. Some bourbons are better enjoyed neat, while others are best served chilled.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to serve bourbon neat or chilled comes down to personal taste and the desired drinking experience. It’s worth experimenting with both methods to determine which one you prefer.
What is the right way to drink bourbon?
There is no one “right” way to drink whiskey, the bourbon type, as it ultimately comes down to personal preference. However, here are some general tips and guidelines for enjoying bourbon:
- Choose a high-quality bourbon: Look for a bourbon made from high-quality ingredients that have been aged properly to develop its unique flavor profile.
- Serve at the right temperature: Bourbon can be enjoyed either neat (at room temperature) or chilled, depending on personal preference. If chilling, avoid over-ice, as this can dilute the flavor of the bourbon.
- Use the right glassware: A tulip-shaped glass or a rocks glass with a heavy bottom is recommended for bourbon, as they help concentrate the aromas and flavors of the spirit.
- Add a splash of water: Some people prefer to add a small amount of water to their bourbon to bring out certain flavors and aromas.
- Sip slowly and savor: Take your time to sip and savor the bourbon flavors. Avoid mixing bourbon with other drinks or gulping it down like a shot.
Remember, the best way to drink bourbon is the way that you enjoy it the most.