Our Bourbon for Beginners Guide is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a meet ‘n’ greet, a warmup, an introduction, a hearty “welcome to the family”! What we love most is that the world of bourbon is approachable. It’s for prince and pauper alike.
Communal as it may be, though, bourbon is mighty and beloved. It’s a whiskey to worship. So, beginners, approach it--of course! But understand that you’re in the presence of something holy--and uniquely American. It’s down-to-earth, but must be revered. You don’t have to bow, but you sure as hell better tip your hat.
Hordes of folks dedicate the majority of their leisure time to America’s Native Spirit and its history, flavorful nuances, and bold offerings. And “Bourbonites” in general may represent the best cult following we’ve ever encountered. Speaking of which, we’ve brought along several bourbon enthusiasts for this ride. Here’s the fine lineup, and we suggest following this super group of seven immediately:
You can also catch this crew in more of our blog articles, due out soon. Check back to read more about their bourbon tips, advice, and experiences.
So, a spelling lesson to kick things off. We promise this one’s painless. It’s really all about geography. In the States, we embrace the E. We say that bourbon and its brothers are whiskeys. Other countries opt for no E. If you’re world-traveling or even perusing an expansive collection at a whiskey bar, you might run across whisky. Some bourbon fans would say to keep running - because you’ve maybe just bumped into Ole Smoky himself: Granddaddy Scotch.
Gather ‘round, ye bourbon babes, and hear a tale of whiskey feat. Whiskey is a distilled dark spirit. Ah, wish we could just stay there and enjoy the eerie mood for a moment. But seriously: it’s a beverage made from fermented grain mash. The grain varieties include wheat, barley, rye, and corn. It’s aged in wooden barrels and hails from all over the globe.
We’ve got through the spelling lesson, but what about history? Here’s a beautiful backstory on whiskey, as well as our star, bourbon. Settlers and farmers in the American South in the late eighteenth century knew a little something about old-world distilling. After all, they were largely Irish, Scots, and other Europeans. So, they had the how in line, but what to use was the question. What’s southern, plentiful, ever-faithful, and sweet to boot? We’re not talking about women; we’re talking about corn, y’all. Rain and wind can beat and rip those stalks to a hazy, maize-y mess. But stake that crop upright again, and it’ll still yield its delicious gold in abundance. And, that's how bourbon was born - our ever beloved spirit.
When you’re drinking bourbon, you’re taking in whiskey that is, first and foremost, produced in the United States. (Bourbon purists will say it has to be from the South, and some even specify Kentucky.) When it gets to your glass, bourbon won’t exceed 160-proof (80% ABV), but it won’t be bottled at anything less than 80-proof (40% ABV). It’s from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn, while the other 49% commonly comprises barley, rye, and wheat mixtures. It goes into the barrel and is stored at 125-proof or less. Further, the barrels are new, American oak containers. (Scotch, in contrast, is aged in used barrels that have previously cradled other whiskeys, wine, port, etc.) Finally, when the distiller is proofing the whiskey for your bottles, they may add water and water alone to adhere to a more pedestrian ABV.
This nectar fit for kings, craved and made by blue-collar farmers, deserves to be displayed in a fine whiskey decanter. Do we have to explain why? We didn’t think so.
Upfront, let’s be clear: there’s no such thing as “the best bourbon.” Well, there is, but not in the way you may be thinking. The best bourbon is your favorite bourbon, and that’s just how it is and always will be. So, no easy answers from us, but you wouldn’t want that anyway. Drink up, ladies and gents. You’re on a mission to meet your match(es). Enjoy the journey.
Popular brand names you’ll soon become familiar with (if you’re not already) are Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Elijah Craig, Maker’s Mark, and Jim Beam, just to name a few. We’ll touch on some of the best starter bourbons later in this article.
Well, generally, it’s characterized by vanilla, caramel, and sweet, oaky notes. But, if the rye game is strong, it’ll taste more spicy and dry. Barley brings forward toasty tones of nutmeg. With wheat, you’ll taste something akin to soft, warm bread with honey drizzled over it. But the balance is going to shift from one bourbon to another. And these descriptions will certainly vary from one Bourbonite to the next.
The good news? Whatever it is, bourbon is sexy. And it’s even sexier in a Prestige Decanters whiskey glass.
You have a few options, kids. And don’t worry about what’s acceptable. All of these are. You might take your bourbon neat (no ice) or on the rocks (with ice). Literally, you may use an eyedropper or a straw to add some drops of filtered or spring water. You can even combine your bourbon with soda or have yourself a bourbon cocktail (more on that in a bit).
We asked each of our enthusiasts about their top three starter bourbons, and here’s what they recommended:
@whiskeymoments: Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace
@chicagobourbon: Basil Hayden’s, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark
@bourbontraveler: Elijah Craig Small Batch, Maker’s Mark, and Four Roses Small Batch
@chsbourbon: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Colonel EH Taylor Small Batch, and Booker’s Bourbon
@steelespeakeasy: I.W. Harper 15, Elijah Craig Small Batch, and Ezra Brooks 7
@bourbonbanter: Basil Hayden’s, Elijah Craig Small Batch, and Maker’s Mark
@brewsandbourbon: Eagle Rare from Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams Single Barrel from Heaven Hill, and Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey
So, there you have it. Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark are in with the most votes. And take note: these guys have wonderful things to say about their beginner’s selections. Catch more from them and these particular bourbons in our upcoming Ultimate Guide to Bourbon! You won’t want to miss it.
We thought you’d never ask, and honestly, some of the bourbon fam would prefer you didn’t. But we’re not here to roll our eyes at you. If you want a bourbon cocktail, by all means, go for it. Our bourbon enthusiasts recommend the following for beginners:
@whiskeymoments: Hot Toddy
@chicagobourbon: Old Fashioned
@bourbontraveler: Old Fashioned and Kentucky Mule
@chsbourbon: Mint Julep and Old Fashioned
@steelespeakeasy: Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, Kentucky Mule, and Gold Rush
@bourbonbanter: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Horse Neck
@brewsandbourbon: Bourbon Blackberry Lemonade
Ah, the Old Fashioned wins--as it perhaps should if you’re really looking to experience the bourbon itself. Once again, plan to join us for our Ultimate Guide to Bourbon where these enthusiasts suggest some classics and a few new recipes you’ve maybe never tried. We’re only scratching the surface of these guys’ knowledge and guidance here.
For now, though, check out our blog “Favorite Old Fashioned Drink Recipe Ideas”!
Time to get deeper into the know, boys and girls. We covered spelling and history, now it’s on to vocabulary. Remember learning your states and capitals? These are far more important.
Single Barrel: A bottle of single-barrel bourbon was filled using one single barrel. However, other bourbons may blend different barrels together before the bottles are filled. Single-barrel bourbons will have an increased chance of one-of-a-kind characteristics and more variations in flavor. (So…where can we apply for the job of finishing off that last half bottle's worth from the single barrels?)
Small Batch: This signals that a bourbon is produced employing a certain number of barrels or even different recipes in a blended bottling.
Cask Strength: This is also known as “barrel proof.” When you have cask strength, you essentially have the bourbon right from the barrel in which it was aged. No distilled water is employed to reduce its ABV. Sometimes, it’s as high as 150-proof (75% ABV). Beginners, steer clear, we say! Standard strength is usually 40-43% ABV, which is, of course, 80- to 86-proof.
Mash Bill: This is the mix of grains used to produce bourbon. They’re actually cooked and fermented to make all this magic happen. Usually, there are three grains in a bourbon mash bill. (You know one of them for sure, or you better by now!)
High Rye: Instead of more corn, wheat, or barley in the bourbon mash, there’s a higher percentage of rye, which produces spicier flavors.
Wheated: A wheated bourbon boasts a high percentage of wheat. (The main grain is, of course, still corn.) This produces a soft, honey-warm whiskey.
Hopefully, the answer is yes! But your learning hs not stopped. In fact, you may never stop learning about bourbon. Your tastes will shift and develop along this bourbon journey. You still have so much to try, learn, and grow into. And that’s a good thing. Plus, that's why we created the ultimate guide to bourbon - for a more detailed coverage of the topic.
Got any more “bourbon for beginners” tips out there? Fellow Bourbonites, please share them below!