Amateur Hour: Once and For all, Novices: This is How you Must Drink Bourbon

Article by Carla Carlton; Photograph by Terry Allen

I was leading a whiskey tasting at a retreat for women trial attorneys in Kentucky this summer when it happened again. I strolled up to a small group and asked how they were enjoying our final pairing: bread pudding with Wild Turkey Rye 101.

One woman, whose glass was untouched, looked sheep-ish. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t handle this without ice.”

“So put an ice cube in it,” I replied.

She looked at me as if I’d just handed her a smoking gun during discovery. “Really? You won’t make fun of me?”

Well, no. For one thing, I hadn’t been paid yet. Nor am I the Barrister of Bourbon. But people keep apologizing to me these days about what—or more specifically how—they are drinking. “What do you think about that bottled limestone water? Oh, I’m sorry—you probably don’t put water in your bourbon.” “What is your favorite mixer with bourbon? Oh, I’m sorry—you probably don’t believe in mixers.”

Why is everyone so sorry? The evidence is clear: The bourbon purists are multiplying, and you, the novice bourbon drinker, are their victims of choice. And while I have to admit that it was kind of a power trip to have a tough-as-nails trial attorney walking on eggshells around me, good grief, counselor, it has to stop.

If you’re new to bourbon, here is the rule you need to remember: Drink what you want, how you want it. (There will be a couple of caveats later. Of course.)

If you have a friend who is new to bourbon—well, I’ll let Colin Blake, director of Spirits Education at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, take this one. “Introducing people to the world of bourbon can generally be boiled down to one sentence: Don’t be an ass. But as simple as that sentiment is, it’s often hard for people to adhere to.

“For some reason, there are a growing number of bour-bon snobs out there who act as judge and jury as to how bourbon should be consumed. And it’s almost always the same way: neat. Which is quite a bit of a juxtaposition to the opinion of almost every bourbon producer and distiller. When (Wild Turkey Master Distiller) Jimmy Russell was once asked what he would say to someone ordering one of his limited releases mixed with a Diet Coke, his response was, ‘Thank you for choosing Wild Turkey.’”

Think of it like this. Telling me that there is one way to drink bourbon is like telling me that I can’t eat a steak unless I eat it rare. Now, I love steak, but to me, a rare steak is disgusting. Medium is about right, although if the inside is really, really pink, I might have to close my eyes to enjoy it. Still, I’ve come a long way from my “cook it until you’re sure it’s dead” roots—learning through gradual experience and experimentation that the predominant flavor of beef is, surprisingly, not charcoal.

This is what I want for you: to find your bourbon sweet spot. But I don’t want you to add so much ice, water, or mixer that you no longer taste the lovely spirit. So, on to the caveats.
First, promise me that you will try at least one sip of a new bourbon neat. Too much fire? Try this: After you swallow, blow out a puff of air like you’re blowing out a birthday candle. Most of the alcohol will go with it, leaving behind the flavors and nuances of the bourbon.

Still not enjoying your spirit? Second caveat: Ask for your water and/or ice on the side, and add it gradually. That way, you won’t end up with a glass of brown-tinged water. (Even if the bourbon isn’t too hot for you, adding a few drops of water will often change the taste profile, “opening up” flavors you didn’t get before.) Remember, the minimum proof for bourbon is 80, or 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). That’s considerably higher than the average 12 to 14 percent ABV of wine, so why be embarrassed if you need
to build a bit of tolerance?

Or, order a cocktail. A classic Old Fashioned helps the bourbon go down with sugar and citrus. (But again, it should not be so sweet that you can’t taste the whiskey.)

Colin agrees with this gradual approach. “Do I recommend that people try a bourbon neat? Yes. I believe that the distiller has made so many decisions that impact the end product that I want to taste it by itself and try to suss out the nuance and what decisions were made. But if someone doesn’t enjoy bourbon neat, then I come up with another way to showcase those aspects, or come up with a series of drinks that can get them from a cocktail to a bourbon neat. But I do it in an engaging, respectful, educational way.”

Finally: Having a friend or an acquaintance tell you how you should drink your bourbon is annoying. Having a bartender tell you how to do so is unforgivable. A good bartender can be a wonderful and helpful resource in discovering delightful new bourbons to try. A bad bartender can be a rude and obnoxious snob. If you order bourbon with a mixer and your barkeep sneers, “Oh, we don’t serve [insert name of bourbon here] mixed with that,” your reply should be: “Not to me, you don’t, because I’m leaving.” Then do. And be sure to tell the manager of the place why.

It’s like Colin says: “At the end of the day, no one has to drink bourbon, or needs to drink bourbon; we get to drink bourbon. It’s about enjoyment, not ego.”

Drinking bourbon is fun! Feeling embarrassed or intimidated? Not fun. Experiment a little. Find out what you like, and then own it. But keep that bloody steak away from me.

Carla Carlton
Official Contributor
Kentucky native Carla Carlton has bourbon flowing through her veins. Her maternal grandmother worked on a bottling line in the 1930s, and her paternal grandfather made whiskey barrel staves to supplement his farming income. She just loves to drink the stuff–neat and at least 100 proof. She shares her knowledge of the spirit and the industry on her website, The Bourbon Babe; in appearances at events like the New Orleans Bourbon Festival and at private tastings; and in her book Barrel Strength Bourbon: The Explosive Growth of America's Whiskey. She brings a lifetime of bourbon passion and nearly three decades of award-winning writing and editing experience to Bourbon+. And as a charter member of Bourbon Women, an international organization, she’s particularly attuned to making women feel welcome at the bar.