Last Updated on February 26, 2024 by Lydia Martin
Many people get intimidated by bourbon, and if you’re a total newbie, you might be wondering: what does bourbon taste like?
Settle down because we’ll explain in-depth how the spirit tastes and everything else you should expect.
What Bourbon Really Tastes Like
Generally, bourbon has caramel and vanilla notes. This is due to the main ingredients used in the mash bill (primarily corn-heavy) and the charred white oak barrels used for aging.
Something you have to note when it comes to bourbon is that there are official production regulations, one of which is that adding flavorings is not allowed.
So what does bourbon taste like if flavorings are prohibited? Bourbon gets its aroma and flavors mainly from the aging process and fermented mash.
8 Types of Bourbons & Their Flavor Profiles
1. Kentucky Bourbon
Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, but it must be made in the Bluegrass State for it to qualify as Kentucky bourbon.
While the distillery must be located within the state, legally speaking, the grains used can be sourced from anywhere.
Kentucky bourbon is characterized by rich and bold flavors.
2. Tennessee Whiskey
Tennessee whiskey has to come from Tennessee. But that’s not the only thing unique about it: it has to undergo the “Lincoln County Process.” The spirit goes through a charcoal chip filtration before being poured into the barrels to age.
So what does bourbon taste like after the Lincoln County Process? Well, the charcoal chips give it a more refined profile.
3. Sour Mash Bourbon
The principle of making sour mash bourbon can be compared to creating sourdough bread: the older mash is used to ferment a new mash. This is done to achieve a deeper and sweeter flavor.
4. High-Rye & Wheated Bourbon
When bourbon is labeled “high-rye” or “wheated,” a high percentage of these ingredients were incorporated into production while remaining faithful to the minimum corn percentage.
A high-rye bourbon uses an additional 20 to 35 percent of it, which gives the final spirit a distinct spiciness.
A wheated bourbon, like Maker’s Mark, uses more winter wheat, which gives it a softer, bread-like profile.
5. Small-Batch & Single-Barrel Bourbon
Small-batch and single-barrel bourbons are pretty exclusive and rare. These production methods are pretty labor-intensive and separate from the main production.
A small-batch bourbon means that it was prepared in a limited run. On the other hand, a single-barrel bourbon is the spirit inside the bottle that comes from just one barrel.
Small-batch bourbons have a lighter texture with notes of vanilla and sweet pepper. Meanwhile, single-barrel bourbons are richer and spicier.
6. Bottled In Bond Bourbon
This bourbon label follows some of the strictest regulations. For one, it has to be aged a minimum of four years inside oak barrels, and it has to be made in one season by the same distiller in a single distillery.
It must also have an ABV of no less than 50 percent.
Bottled-in-Bond bourbons have a more concentrated flavor profile, making them perfect for cocktails.
7. Blended Bourbon
A blended bourbon must contain a minimum of 51 percent straight bourbon whiskey. The remaining 49 percent can come from other types of spirits, colorings, and flavorings. Blending is used to enhance the flavor and texture of a liquor.
8. Straight Bourbon
Straight bourbons have been aged for no less than two years, distilled to no more than 40 percent ABV, and aged in new, charred oak barrels.
However, they need not come from a single distillery nor a single mash bill — it can include a blend of two or more Kentucky straight bourbons. The label has to include the word “blend” if the drams were sourced from another state.
Straight bourbons have rich and bold flavor profiles with notes of oak and spices.
7 Factors That May Affect Bourbon’s Taste
1. Production Location
The production location of the bourbon affects its taste.
As mentioned earlier, Tennessee whiskey is required to undergo the Lincoln County Process, which gives the final liquor a more refined profile than Kentucky bourbon.
2. Bourbon Type
The type of bourbon in the bottle is also indicative of how the spirit would taste. There would undoubtedly be a difference in the flavors of a straight, blended, and wheat bourbon.
3. Mash Bill
The mash bill used in bourbon production heavily influences its final flavor. Bourbon must be distilled with at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill, but the final spirit will be spicier if more rye is used.
If a bourbon uses more wheat, its flavor will be comparable to freshly-baked bread.
4. Distillation & Proof
Bourbon follows strict regulations in distillation and proof. It must be distilled up to 160 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40 percent ABV).
A general rule of thumb is the higher the proof, the hotter the bourbon. You’ll typically find higher-proof drams being sipped on the rocks to eliminate some of the heat.
5. How It’s Served
Bourbon on ice is probably the most popular way to drink it. We recommend using one large ice cube whenever you drink bourbon, so it doesn’t get diluted quickly.
Drinking bourbon neat is the neat pour of the bourbon into your glass. Most aficionados drink bourbon this way, but it can overwhelm those with more inexperienced palates.
Classic bourbon cocktails include the Bourbon Sour and Boulevardier. 
6. Age Statement
A bourbon with an age statement of over ten years will have taken on most of the caramel and vanilla flavors from the oak barrels.
Conversely, a whiskey that has only aged two years will probably have a more grain-forward profile. But will bourbon get better with age?
7. Flavor Dominant Categories
Nutmeg-forward bourbon tends to be a savory dram. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the flavor comes from, but we’ve noticed it comes up if the whiskey uses plenty of barley.
We typically use grain-forward to describe drams that have not aged long. It usually takes about four years for the whiskey to take on more flavors from the charred oak barrels instead of the original grain mash notes.
High-ryes tend to have more cinnamon notes because of the rye spice. These can also take on the flavors of clove, ginger, and other spices.
Caramel-forward bourbons have taken on the caramel notes of the oak barrels. These drams also have notes of vanilla, toasted oak, and other dark flavors.
8. Flavor Notes
Cinnamon & Nutmeg Notes
We typically associate these with mash bills that have plenty of barley. These are more spicy and savory, taking on plenty of baking spice flavors.
We refer to orange, mint, and other fruits as floral notes derived from the yeast strain used in fermentation. Buffalo Trace is a great example of a floral-heavy spirit.
Vanilla & Caramel Notes
Aged bourbon takes on the vanilla and caramel notes from the oak barrels. When the alcohol enters the barrels, it reacts with the wood to bring out those yummy notes.
The lengthy aging process also removes most of the harshness typically in younger drams, resulting in a smooth spirit.
The aging process also contributes to the wooden notes in bourbon. Tobacco, walnut, and pecan are just some flavors in a woodsy whiskey.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is bourbon sweeter than whiskey?
Bourbon is sweeter than whiskey. The defining characteristic of bourbon is that it has to be made predominantly with corn, which gives it a natural sweetness. Other whiskeys like Scotch are made from malted barley, which tends to be smoky and bitter.
Is bourbon sweet or bitter?
Bourbon is sweeter than other spirits, thanks to the corn-heavy mash used in the production process. Bourbon must be made with at least 51 percent corn to comply with the legal regulations of making this spirit.
Does bourbon taste good?
The taste of bourbon is subjective and varies based on personal preferences, but many people appreciate its rich, caramel, and vanilla notes, along with a hint of spiciness, creating a complex and flavorful profile that appeals to a broad range of palates.
Is bourbon a good beginner drink?
Bourbon can be an excellent choice for beginners due to its smooth and approachable nature; varieties like Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, or Woodford Reserve provide a balanced introduction to the world of whiskey with their mellow sweetness and appealing flavor profiles.
How do you taste bourbon for beginners?
For beginners exploring bourbon, start by nosing the spirit to identify aromas, then take small sips to appreciate the flavors—notice the sweetness, spice, and any other nuances; it’s recommended to taste it neat initially and gradually experiment with water or ice to find the preferred balance.
Is bourbon a classy drink?
Bourbon is often considered a classy and sophisticated spirit, appreciated for its heritage, craftsmanship, and the ritualistic experience of savoring a well-crafted glass; whether enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a classic cocktail, bourbon exudes a timeless and refined charm.
Is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon?
Jack Daniel’s is not technically a bourbon; it is a Tennessee whiskey. While both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey share similarities, such as the use of corn in their mash bills, Tennessee whiskey, including Jack Daniel’s, undergoes an additional charcoal filtering process known as the Lincoln County Process, which involves dripping the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging, giving it a distinct flavor profile that sets it apart from traditional bourbons.
So, What Does Bourbon Taste Like?
Generally, bourbon is sweet. It owes its flavor to the high percentage of corn used in production.
It takes on a spicier profile if the corn is complemented with high rye. On the other hand, if it uses more wheat, the whiskey will take on a bread-like profile.
The bourbon will adopt the smooth, rich flavors of caramel and vanilla if it has spent at least four years inside the barrels.
Not all whiskey has this profile, though — those younger tend to be more grain-forward because they still have most of the components of the corn and other grains.