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The Expert Opinion: Should You Let Bourbon Breathe Before Drinking?

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Last Updated on November 5, 2023 by Lydia Martin

As someone who has often savored a good bourbon, I’ve often wondered if letting it breathe before drinking makes a difference.

Is it an old-fashioned tradition, or does it enhance the flavor? Through my own experiences, taste test experiment, and research, I’ve come to a conclusion on this debated topic.

In this article, I’ll share my thoughts on whether or not to let bourbon breathe and explain why I believe it’s a matter of personal preference.

So, pour yourself a glass, and let’s dive into the world of bourbon breathing.

Introduction

What is bourbon breathing?

Bourbon breathing is the process of letting the alcohol molecules oxidize by exposing them to air before drinking. [1]

It is believed to enhance the flavor and aroma of the bourbon by allowing the alcohol to evaporate and the other flavors to become more pronounced.

However, there is a debate among bourbon enthusiasts on whether this process is necessary or beneficial.

How to let the bourbon breathe before drinking?

Allowing bourbon to breathe can enhance its flavor and aroma. This can be achieved by following these steps:

  1. Pour the bourbon into a glass: Choose a glass that allows the same whiskey to breathe, such as a tulip-shaped glass or a wide-mouthed tumbler.
  2. Let the glass sit: Let the whisky sit for a few minutes, up to 10 minutes, to let the bourbon breathe. During this time, the alcohol vapors will evaporate, and the aroma and flavor will become more pronounced.
  3. Swirl the glass: Gently swirl the bourbon around the glass to allow it to come into contact with the air. This can help to further release the aromas and flavors.
  4. Take a sniff: Hold the glass up to your nose and take a deep breath in to appreciate the aroma of the bourbon.
  5. Take your first sip: Sip the bourbon slowly, allowing it to coat your taste buds, and savor the complex flavors to experience an exceptional, not a relatively ordinary, dram drinking session. unlike wine

pretty lady sitting on a couch and holding a glass of bourbon

The Science Behind Bourbon Breathing

What happens when bourbon is exposed to air?

When bourbon is exposed to air, a chemical reaction takes place between the oxygen in the air and the compounds in the bourbon.

This process is called oxidation and can result in changes to the flavor and aroma of the bourbon.

Specifically, exposure to oxygen can cause the alcohol to evaporate and some of the other flavors and aromas to become more pronounced.

However, suppose the bourbon is exposed to air for too long. In that case, it can lead to over-oxidation, which can develop in a loss of flavor and aroma.

How long does it take for bourbon to “breathe”?

The amount of time it takes for bourbon to “breathe” can vary depending on factors such as the type of bourbon, its age, and the environment in which it is stored.

Some bourbon enthusiasts recommend letting the bourbon breathe for a few minutes, while others suggest a longer period, up to an hour or more.

It’s worth experimenting with different breathing times to see what works best for your taste preferences.

It’s important to note that if bourbon is left to breathe for too long, it can become over-oxidized and lose some of its flavor and aroma.

What factors affect the breathing process?

When it comes to the bourbon breathing process, there are several factors to review that can affect the final taste and aroma, including [2]:

  • Type of bourbon: The type of bourbon can affect the breathing process. Younger bourbons may require less time to breathe than older ones, which can have more complex flavors and aromas.
  • Age of the bourbon: As bourbon ages, it can become more delicate and nuanced in its flavors and aromas. Therefore, older bourbons may benefit from more time to breathe than younger ones.
  • Storage conditions: The storage conditions can also affect the breathing process. If the bourbon is stored in a cool, dark place, it may need more time to breathe than if it is stored in a warmer, more humid environment.
  • Bottle shape and size: The shape and size of the bourbon bottle can also affect the breathing process. Larger bottles may require more time to breathe than smaller ones, while the shape of the bottle can impact the surface area of the bourbon exposed to air.
  • Oxygen exposure: The amount of oxygen exposure can affect the breathing process. Pouring bourbon into a glass can expose it to more air than leaving it in the bottle. The surface area of the bourbon in contact with air can also impact the breathing process.
  • Personal preference: Ultimately, personal taste preference is the most important factor in determining breathing time. Some people may prefer to drink bourbon immediately, while others may enjoy the more pronounced flavors and aromas that come with letting it breathe for some time.

Why is it recommended to let the bourbon whiskey sit?

Many experts and whiskey enthusiasts recommend letting bourbon sit before drinking to allow the whiskey to oxidize and release its aromas and flavors fully.

For instance, Jim McEwan, a recently retired master distiller at Bruichladdich, advocates letting a whisky sit br for every year of its age.

The flavors and aromas can develop and intensify by giving the bourbon time to breathe and settle, resulting in a more enjoyable and complex drinking experience.

a glass of cold bourbon

Pros and Cons of Bourbon Breathing

Advantages of letting bourbon breathe

Picture yourself holding a glass of bourbon. As you take a sip, the aroma and flavor are not as pronounced as you expected.

This is where letting bourbon whisky breathe can come in handy. Allowing bourbon to breathe before drinking whiskey can offer benefits such as:

  • Enhancing aroma and flavor: Letting bourbon whiskey breathe can help release more complex and nuanced flavors and aromas. This is because the oxygen in the air interacts with the bourbon’s compounds and can enhance the overall tasting experience.
  • Reducing alcohol burn: Exposure to air can also help to reduce the alcohol burn sensation when drinking bourbon. This can make the bourbon more enjoyable to drink, especially for those who are sensitive to intense alcoholic flavors.
  • Allowing time for the bourbon to open up: As you let your whiskey breathe, it allows time for the bourbon to “open up” and for the flavors and aromas to fully evolve. This can be particularly beneficial for older or more complex bourbons that may require more time to fully express themselves.
  • Customizing the taste: By experimenting with different breathing times and conditions, you can customize the taste of the bourbon to your liking. You can adjust the breathing time to bring out specific flavors or to create a smoother and more enjoyable drinking experience.
  • Discovering hidden flavors: Letting bourbon breathe can also help to reveal hidden flavors and aromas that may not be immediately apparent when the bourbon is first poured. This can add a new dimension to the tasting experience and help you appreciate the bourbon even more.

Disadvantages of letting bourbon breathe

Imagine preparing to enjoy a glass of your favorite bourbon, but after letting whiskey breathe, you notice a loss of flavor and a risk of oxidation.

These are some of the potential disadvantages of allowing bourbon to breathe, including:

  • Risk of oxidation and loss of flavor: Letting bourbon breathe can increase the risk of oxidation, which can cause the bourbon to lose some of its flavor and aroma. This is because the oxygen in the air can interact with the bourbon’s compounds, causing them to break down and deteriorate over time. This can be particularly problematic for matured or more delicate bourbons.
  • Not necessary for some bourbons: Not all bourbons benefit from being allowed to breathe before drinking. Some bourbons may already have a balanced flavor profile and do not require any additional time to develop their flavors and aromas. In fact, letting some bourbons breathe can actually negatively impact their taste.
  • Risk of over-oxygenation: Letting bourbon breathe for too long can also lead to over-oxygenation, which can result in a flat or stale taste. This is because too much exposure to air can cause the bourbon to lose its complexity and depth of flavor.
  • Inconsistent results: Experimenting with breathing times and conditions can be subjective and lead to inconsistent results. What works well for one person may not work as well for another, and it may take some trial and error to find the optimal breathing method for a particular bourbon.
  • Time-consuming: Letting bourbon breathe before drinking can be time-consuming, especially if you prefer to let it breathe for an extended period. This can be inconvenient for those who want to enjoy their bourbon quickly or do not have the time to wait for it to develop its flavors and aromas.

FAQs

Does bourbon need to be airtight?

Bourbon should be stored in an airtight and sealed bottle to preserve its flavor and prevent oxidation. Exposure to air can cause the bourbon to oxidize and lose some of its flavors over time.

Keeping the bourbon in its original bottle is recommended, tightly sealed with the cork or screw top.

If the original bottle is not airtight, transferring the bourbon to a decanter with an airtight seal can also be a good option.

Can water help the bourbon breathe?

Adding a few drops of water to bourbon can indeed help to open up its flavors and aromas, similar to the breathing process.

When water is added, it dilutes the bourbon and reduces its alcohol content, which can make it easier to detect more subtle notes in the whiskey.

Additionally, the added water can react chemically with the compounds in the bourbon, releasing more aroma molecules and creating a more complex flavor profile.

However, it is important to add water in small amounts, as adding too much water can overpower the flavors and alter the balance of the bourbon.

References

  1. https://www.tastingtable.com/797213/the-reason-you-need-to-let-whiskey-breathe/
  2. https://www.aiche.org/resources/publications/cep/2021/august/chemistry-bourbon
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