Is there a right or wrong way to enjoy bourbon? We set off in search of a definitive answer by asking everyone from master distillers, tour guides, mill workers and marketing managers to quality control scientists, chief operating officers and bartenders — most of whom have lived in Kentucky all of their life — about how they take the stuff. The truth, as we discovered, is all in the mouth of the drinker.
Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve Distillery
“I love to drink my bourbon according to the occasion. According to how I feel. For example, in the wintertime you might find me drinking our bourbon neat. I’m also a big fan of cocktails. I love the Old Fashioned, I love the Manhattan, and at derby time you got to have to have a mint julep or two, and I make a mean mint julep. And of course, on the rocks. So I’m a purist in those classic drinks. But what I also love to do is, as we travel, go to a new restaurant or an old favorite — and to see your brand in a new cocktail that they’ve invented using Woodford Reserve, you’ve always got to try that drink. And you discover some great drinks. So I’m open to trying our product in a lot of different ways.”
Bartender at The Silver Dollar Louisville, staffer at the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller
“Bourbon, neat, in a Glencarin. It’s the original whiskey glass. Scotch drinkers made it famous. It allows plenty of aroma; you can really let the bourbon open up here. Drink it neat first if it’s something you’ve never had before. Really appreciate what it is. If you like to mix it or add water to it, or ice, then you’re more than welcome to it. But you can’t take anything out of it; you can only add to it.”
Video: How Bourbon is Made
Chief Operating Officer at Four Roses Distillery
“When I drink bourbon, it’s usually over ice, maybe two or three cubes. I pour it over so that it’ll melt a little bit of the ice, bring it up maybe to the top of the ice cubes or just below the ice cubes and drink it right there. When you put bourbon over ice, and the cold interacts with the bourbon, the product will actually bloom. You can smell and taste a neat bourbon, put it over ice and do it again, and you’ll see that something just got magnified here.
“Now, I will tell you that bourbon is an acquired taste. Not everyone will like it from day one. So for those people I tell them to start off like your mom taught you to drink coffee: You probably didn’t start out on black coffee — you probably started with a little bit of coffee and a lot of cream or milk. If you’re not a bourbon drinker, start out the same way — with a little bit of bourbon and a lot of ice, or quite a bit of water. It’ll taste diluted, but you’ll find yourself going back to that diluted drink, and after about 10 minutes you’re going to go back and say, ‘You know what, that’s pretty good’ — and you’ll try it with less water next time.”
Miller at Maker’s Mark Distillery
“Well, I like it with Coke and all, myself. Bourbon is the only thing I drink; I can’t drink beer or nothing like that. It’s the only thing I can drink.”
Director of Operations for Town Branch Distilling and Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company
“I drink bourbon neat or with just a few drops of water. Water tends to bring out a few of the aromatics of whiskey. Unfortunately, my critical nose, when I’m tasting anything, always comes out. My wife always jokes that you can’t really taste anything without really tasting it. It’s true, you know. It’s one of the curses, but it’s also a blessing because I try to do whatever allows me to bring out the most flavor from a whiskey.”
Tour Guide at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse Distillery
“Personally, I like to drink my bourbon neat. Just room temperature right out of the bottle. Particularly when I’m trying a new bourbon, I ask for it neat each and every time. Get that full experience, and maybe after I’ve had two or three sips, go ahead and add a cube of ice or a splash of water to see how the whiskey changes.”
Tour Guide at Buffalo Trace Distillery
“It’s really kind of crazy — there are a couple of different ways I like my bourbon, depending on the product and my mood. I’ve found that 85 percent of the people that drink bourbon mix it with something, and they don’t even realize what they are doing. Some people will say one splash of water, two splashes of water, shaved ice, ice balls, one ice cube, two ice cubes. What I’ve discovered is that I thoroughly love Eagle Rare chilled and I pour it over ice. Dependent upon my mood, I’ll drink it just on the rocks. Sometimes I’ll actually chill it and use Mexican Sprite, it’s Sprite made with real cane sugar, and I put it in a tapered shot glass, and I pour it three quarters full with Eagle Rare and top it off with the Sprite. I just put enough Sprite in it that I start to see the carbonation coming up from the bottom and it opens it up. I sip it like a Drambuie.
I’m in my zone, I’m a happy camper, and here’s the reason: The inside of your mouth is 93 degrees and whenever you put something into your mouth, like a chilled drink, it drops the temperature of the inside of your mouth and the heart immediately starts pumping blood to your tongue. It’s call the lingual artery. And what it’s doing is it’s warming the mouth back up again and at the same time the body reacts by flooding your mouth with enzymes. And you don’t really taste anything until the enzymes start to break it down. But the cool part is if [the drink is] cooler, it gradually warms up the inside of your mouth, so you get a chance to taste more of the subtle nuances in the whiskey. The palette’s just not overwhelmed all at once with it coming in, boom, right in your face. And by doing it this way, you can roll it around on your tongue, you get all kind of caramelized toffee notes. And they don’t flood your mouth, they just gradually reveal themselves to you and it’ll actually make your mouth water.”
Master Distiller at Willett Distillery
“Most of the time I drink it neat. I do enjoy a good cocktail every once in a while. A whiskey sour is my favorite cocktail followed by a Boulevardier. But most of the time it’s neat.”
Quality Manager at Maker’s Mark
“I like to drink my bourbon lots of different ways. I like bourbon and coke. Sometimes a good Old Fashioned. But that’s the great thing about bourbon, you can play with it and drink it however you like.”