Everything you've wanted to know about bourbon but have been too afraid to ask

FrauTori/ShutterstockThe best bourbon comes from Kentucky.

Along with cooler temperatures, pumpkin-spice everything, the arrival of autumn also means new flavour profiles for your drinking repertoire. The sangrias, margarita pitchers, and endless Aperol Spritzes of summer give way to ciders, Oktoberfest beers, and – best of all – brown spirits taking their rightful place in your liquor cabinet.

To really optimise the rich, smoky possibilities of your fall cocktail game, you’ll want to focus on one spirit in particular: bourbon whiskey. Here, we’re bringing you a beginner’s guide to bourbon; what it is, when it’s good, how to mix it, and how to pair it. And to help guide you on the right path, we enlisted Trey Zoeller, founder and CEO of Jefferson’s Bourbon, to provide some valuable words of bourbon wisdom.

What is bourbon?

John Sommers II/Getty ImagesDistilled whiskey made with 51% of corn.

In the simplest terms, “bourbon” refers to whiskey distilled in the United States that’s made from at least 51% corn. While bourbon can be made anywhere on American soil, the vast majority (and, certainly, the most renowned version) comes from the state of Kentucky.

According to Zoeller, properly-made bourbon needs to a specific type of ageing: “You need new charred white oak to age [bourbon] in, and once you put spirits in wood, there are a lot of different things that happen. And bourbon has to be in the wood for a long time – at least four years.”

What’s the difference between bourbon and other types of whiskey?

thomas carr / ShutterstockBourbon is aged in oak barrels.

The charred oak barrel-ageing used for bourbon imparts very specific flavours to the finished product, which set this spirit apart from other varieties of whiskey.

“Bourbon, using new barrels, takes its flavour from the wood. The most dominant flavours are typically vanilla and caramel,” Zoeller told INSIDER. Combined with the gentle smokiness that comes from the barrel char, these flavours lend themselves beautifully to seasonal fall cocktails.

How can you tell if you’re tasting a “good” bourbon?

The Happiest HourA good bourbon has an easy finish.

As with all boozy libations, “good” is in the eye (or rather, the taste buds) of the beholder. If you like the taste, then you’ve got a “good” bottle for you, regardless of external factors.

But if you’re looking for a “good” bourbon by expert standards, Zoeller advises paying attention to the following characteristics: “[The first is] is flavour, and [the second] is mouthfeel. I like it to have a lot of weight and viscosity on it so it kind of coats your tongue. Then, I look for an easy finish.”

What if you can’t taste a bourbon before buying it? How can you pick a quality bottle?

If you find yourself staring at a liquor-store whiskey wall, uncertain of which bourbon to grab, remember these four words: “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.”

“Anything that says ‘Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey’ [on the label], you’re gonna be safe. Most of those have been aged for a significant number of years, they have mellowed, and they have cut the rough edges off.To have that designation on the label,] it’s gotta be made in Kentucky, and it’s gotta be aged for at least four years. If it’s not four years, it needs to state that on the label.

“It needs to be aged in new charred white oak barrels, and there can be nothing added to it. No caramel colouring, no vanilla extract. It has to be put into the bottle at over 80 proof, put into the barrel at 125 proof, can’t be distilled over 160 proof, has to be made from at least 51 per cent corn. Bourbon actually has more standards than any other spirit, more of a rigid definition,” Zoeller told INSIDER.

But what if you want a bourbon with a bit of edge? Craft distillers in Kentucky experiment with unique ageing processes all the time, and that info can be found on the bottle labels. In the case of Jefferson’s, their creative bourbon projects include mature whiskeys aged further in Cabernet barrels to get some of that red-wine flavour essence in.

For one of their most popular varieties, Jefferson’s Ocean, the team loads barrels onto ships before setting sail. “We age [the barrels] on ships so they rock back and forth, which takes out some of the astringency and alcohol and adds a caramel flavour and some brininess, so it tastes like salted caramel popcorn,” Zoeller described.

Does bourbon pair well with food?

Flickr / jpellgenBourbon is sweet and smoky so it goes with lots of foods.

The short answer: Yes, absolutely. Bourbon’s an especially great fit for tailgating parties and autumn fireside cookouts, because “smokier meats go very well with bourbon,” according to Zoeller.

But there’s no need to stow away the bourbon bottle when dessert rolls around, as many fall-favourite sweets benefit from the vanilla-caramel notes in bourbon. Zoeller gives a special shout-out to crème brûlée and pumpkin pie as particularly attractive dessert pairings for a smooth Kentucky sipper.

Which bourbon cocktails are best for beginners?

AMCIf you are beginning, you should drink bourbon as a cocktail.

First of all, bourbon newbies should remember that, as Zoeller told INSIDER, “even the most seasoned bourbon drinkers didn’t start by drinking bourbon neat. It’s kind of like doing a double flip off the high dive. You don’t do that your first time in the pool. You gotta wade in first. Talking to everyone I know [in Kentucky] who drinks bourbon, [they started] by drinking bourbon on the rocks with Coke or 7-Up or ginger ale, then maybe substituting water for one of those soft drinks. Then the water disappears, and you drink it on the rocks. And there’s really no wrong way of drinking it.”

If you’re more of a cocktail person, that format gives you ample opportunity to get to know your bourbons. Many classic cocktails use the brown spirit as a base, such as the retro standard made newly popular by “Mad Men”, the Old-Fashioned. Zoeller especially likes this one for new bourbon drinkers because “it’s got fruit flavours, it’s got some sweetness, it’s got a little bit of everything, but it still allows the flavours of the bourbon to come through.”

For another traditional bourbon cocktail that’s a little less sweet, go for a classic Manhattan. Zoeller offered up the following recipe for the at-home bartenders out there:

2 oz bourbon

.5 oz sweet vermouth

.5 oz dry vermouth

A dash or two of cherry-spiced bitters


In a mixing glass, stir bourbon, dry & sweet vermouth with a couple of ice cubes. Pour into rocks glass, top with bitters. Optional: Garnish with cherry and/or twist of orange.


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