how to drink bourbon
There's no best way to drink bourbon
I hate to break it to you, but if you’re wondering how to drink bourbon, I can tell you that the best way to drink bourbon doesn’t exist. But wait, what I can tell you is how to drink it like a whiskey blogger / reviewer…meaning how I do it.
So far, I’ve reviewed over 200 whiskeys (primarily bourbon) and done a bunch of comparisons, which require the ability to smell, taste, and differentiate as much as possible. In the process, I’ve developed my own best way to drink bourbon to make the most out of every pour.
I’m not saying that this is the perfect approach, just what I’ve decided is best for me for this situation. Hopefully there are takeaways to further enhance your own whiskey drinking experience.
So let me tell you how to drink bourbon like a whiskey blogger / reviewer (aka yours truly).
As an FYI, I bought and use these Glencairn glasses for my reviews and comparisons (because they’re the best): Glencairn Crystal Whiskey Glass, Set of 6, Clear, 6 Pack. Full transparency, this is an affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.
How to drink bourbon like a whiskey reviewer
Best Way to Drink Bourbon - Keep your senses clean
Your senses go through a lot over the day, and they get “dirty” and tired. For the best whiskey drinking experience possible, you probably want your senses to be as “clean” and “ready” as possible.
For me, it starts with what I don’t eat beforehand. Sweet foods (e.g., candy, dessert) especially desensitize my tastebuds to whiskey’s sweetness, so afterwards whiskey mostly tastes like oak and alcohol with a little bit of sweetness. I can’t actually taste it.
As a result, I try to avoid overly sweet food 3+ hours before a review. I can handle spicy and salty to some degree, but too much of that is also hard to clear out in a few hours (e.g., mala hot pot).
Seriously, avoid eating this before drinking whiskey
Next, removing as much of that sensory buildup and “gunk” goes a long way to maximizing my ability to smell and taste. This is what I use:
For Taste: Eat 70%+ dark chocolate (moreso let it melt and coat my mouth) at least 30 minutes before doing the review, and drink water. And yes, I’ve packed my own dark chocolate when I help do barrel picks (and to share). Others have mentioned crackers and nuts, but that doesn’t work well for me.
Dark chocolate options in Japan
For Smell: Sniff coffee grounds (whole beans work fine too) before and during the review. During a review, I give myself a few seconds after smelling coffee because the dark and roasty notes linger a little. I also smell fresh water just to be safe. It sounds like a lot, but it works magic during a review. I’m always surprised how much clearer and vibrant whiskey smells afterwards.
Putting coffee grounds in a bowl makes it easier to have it on hand for reviews
Dark chocolate and coffee grounds are two things I read about somewhere, tried it, and just kept doing it because it worked so well for me.
Best Way to Drink Bourbon - Use the appropriate glassware
I firmly believe that the best way to drink bourbon for a review includes using a Glencairn glass. So far, Glencairns have been the best glass to help me smell and taste as much as possible, so I use them for all of my reviews and comparisons.
My stash of Glencairns in Japan
Glassware with a tapered top is preferred (and used across the whiskey industry) because it funnels all the scents into a smaller area and into your nose, minimizing how much escapes into the air and thus enhancing the scents.
I’m not sponsored by Glencairn. I just believe that it’s the best for what I do, so try it if you haven’t already. Everyone has their personal preference, and this is mine.
Just an artistic photo I’m not talented enough to take myself
I personally can’t smell whiskey when I use tumblers or rocks glasses, so I avoid them for reviews. For better or worse, many bars still serve whiskey (even neat) in those types of glasses, but it is what it is. They still work great for cocktails though.
Shameless plug – if you’re thinking about buying Glencairns, support The Whiskey Shelf by buying them through my Amazon affiliate link (in any quantity that you want). There’s no extra cost to you in any way.
Best Way to Drink Bourbon - Relax and give your whiskey some air
After I pour a glass, I swirl it and then let it rest for 30+ minutes. I vigorously swirl to aerate the whiskey and hopefully unlock more scents and flavors, like people often do for wine.
Why the overkill? I believe that the alcohol is agitated after pouring and/or swirling, so it’s also released into the air to abuse my nose and overpower the other scents. Rest helps calm the alcohol to more “normal” levels so it doesn’t cover up everything else. I ended up with 30 minutes out of an abundance of caution.
If I pour / swirl and then immediately smell afterwards (using a Glencairn of course), I get too much harsh alcohol.
Letting Blanton’s from 1991 rest before a review
The best way to drink bourbon is to be patient, but waiting 30+ minutes is not practical in most situations. Because I’m a normal human being, I don’t wait nearly as long at bars or anywhere else. For you, I think 3-5 minutes of rest may be enough.
Best Way to Drink Bourbon - Have fun and be optimistic
This is an obvious point, but I think it’s still worth mentioning because this focuses on the best way to drink bourbon for doing reviews: try to be optimistic and curious when drinking whiskey.
Regardless of what I review, I want to learn as much as possible. So regardless of price, hype, or brand, I always try to be optimistic and curious because I want to love every whiskey and discover something amazing and new. Not every bourbon is going to fantastic, but it’s still a useful learning experience.
Even if you’re drinking something you’ve had before, there still might be something new and fun to discover.
Best Way to Drink Bourbon - Smell like you mean it
There’s a certain art to smelling that’s more than just shut your mouth and smell away.
I picked up this interesting technique from a liquor store owner (and whiskey lover) that I’ve used for years: smell with your mouth open and let the air come through your nose and mouth. Let me explain this because it seems strange and takes some practice.
Smelling away with my mouth open
First, try smelling with your mouth open (seriously). When you try to do it, you probably clench your tongue and/or throat to force air into your nose and not your mouth. What I do is relax my mouth and tongue, and let my stomach pull the air in through my nose and mouth. Don’t try to force it through your nose.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “breathe with your stomach and not your chest”, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
There’s this whole science that taste is mostly smell that explains why it’s better to smell with your mouth open so scents go through your mouth and nose. I won’t get into that because I don’t totally understand it.
What I can tell you is that it makes me sniff more gently, lessening the alcohol, and has been a game-changing discovery for my ability to smell whiskey.
Smelling some more
Seriously, it works wonders and I’m never going back. Maybe it’ll work great for you too, once you are able to do it.
Best Way to Drink Bourbon - Taste it slow
My focus is on taking the time to slowly savor and process the flavors as best I can. The best way to drink bourbon is with small sips, which goes a long way to help me pick out more notes. It’s especially useful with higher ABV whiskey (usually 60%+) that can more easily overwhelm and “fry” my mouth.
That said, I taste whiskey in two parts: the initial sip (maybe 2) and subsequent ones with “chewing”.
I let that first sip gently coat my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. Be mindful that the whiskey might be a tad harsher than it truly is because the alcohol and oak can “shock” your mouth, especially on a fresh palate.
Some people have a “warm up” bourbon to minimize the “shock”, but I go in cold and it’s usually isn’t issue. It’s an option if you want to try it though.
The second time and thereafter, I always “chew” the whiskey. “Chewing”, often referred to as the “Kentucky” or “bourbon” chew, resembles swishing mouthwash.
At least for me, chewing for a second or two and then swallowing the whiskey bit by bit (not all at once) helps open up the flavors, gives me more time to absorb and process everything, and write all my thoughts.
That’s one of the main themes – appreciating whiskey takes time, so I try to spend more time with the flavors by chewing it and letting it rest in my mouth.
Chewing and processing some bourbon
I’ve had quite a few bourbons become drastically more flavorful and complex after “chewing” (e.g., Old Ezra 12 Year), so it’s incredibly important step to get the most out of any whiskey.
On the important topic of how to better pick out flavors, I’m going to cover that in a separate writeup because that alone is a lengthy article, so bear with me on that.
It's up to you to figure out how to drink bourbon your way
There you have it, how to drink bourbon like a whiskey reviewer. While it’s laser-focused on getting the most out of whiskey and picking out as many notes as possible, it isn’t practical in every situation. But, there still are principles that I hope you can take away for yourself to enhance your abilities and/or experiences.
At the end of the day, experiment and find out what works for you, because the best way to drink bourbon is unique to you, just as it is for me when I do a review.
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Meet the Author: Alex
I have far too much fun writing about whiskey and singlehandedly running The Whiskey Shelf to bring you independent, honest, and useful reviews, comparisons, and more. I’m proudly Asian American and can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and some Japanese.There are no sponsors, no media companies, and no nonsense. Support The Whiskey Shelf by Buying Me A Shot.
If you’re on the move, this Glencairn-like stainless steel snifter glass should survive your travels. Shattered glass Glencairn’s really suck. Full transparency, this is an Amazon affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon. BrüMate NOS’R, Double-Wall Stainless Steel Whiskey Nosing Glass – 7oz (Matte Black)
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