You’ve probably heard of many bourbon connoisseurs talking about the full-bodied and oaky flavors offered, and you’re just confused by all the jargon.
Bourbon tastes like alcohol; what else is there to talk about? What does bourbon taste like anyway?
Bourbon has a wide variety of aromas and flavors as it depends on the brand of bourbon you purchase and what it’s made of. (*)
Short Answer: In general, bourbon would have vanilla, oak, and caramel notes. Contrary to what you may believe, bourbon is flavorful, being smooth, and easy to drink. It’s why most drinkers enjoy bourbon neat while others like pouring it in cocktails.
But there’s more to learn than just that! Read on to find out what bourbon is and the factors that contribute to its flavor.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is an American whisky made of at least 51% corn, while the rest is made of either malted barley, wheat, or rye. There are no added coloring, flavoring, or additives. Bourbon only contains water!
Fun fact: Bourbon shouldn’t be distilled any higher than 80% ABV, barreled higher than 62.5% ABV, or bottled lower than 40% ABV. Furthermore, it should be aged in a new charred white oak barrel for at least two years.
Bourbon’s strict standards make it stand out from the rest of the different whiskies and liqueurs around. It’s also what makes bourbon a trendy drink.
Fun fact: The name bourbon originates from Bourbon Country, Kentucky. This is where bourbon was invented. Today, more than 95% of bourbon produced comes from Kentucky.
What Does Bourbon Taste Like?
When we first took a sip of bourbon, we tasted something similar to Eggnog. But when we had another sip from another bourbon brand, it tasted like cornbread! It’s pretty interesting to see the differences in flavor among brands and locations.
Because of its varying flavors, we break it down into the most dominant bourbon flavors.
Some bourbons are warmer than usual, tasting like warm cinnamon. That’s most likely because of the rye grain or yeast used during the production process. That cinnamon flavor may also come from the barrel the bourbon is aged in.
Fun fact: Professional drinkers and connoisseurs describe this as "spicy." It makes sense since cinnamon IS a spice.
Bourbon isn’t made of any flowers or their parts, so it might seem odd to taste some floral notes! That is most likely from the by-product yeast produced during the fermentation process.
Yeast is microorganisms used for fermentation, producing carbon dioxide, ethanol, and even flavor compounds. Such flavors may pass from the distillation to aging, then up to the moment, you pour bourbon into your glass.
Because bourbon matures in wooden barrels, it’s obvious to expect it to have some woody flavors. In barrels, it can take bourbon up to four years to mature. The longer it ages in a barrel, the woodier the flavor becomes.
Since most bourbons age in oak barrels, you can expect to taste oak, almond, cedar, pecan, and walnut, which are oak-derived flavors. Some bourbons may even have bitter flavors like black tea, rich tobacco, and for others, a leathery taste. That’s why some bourbons are considered an acquired taste.
Grain bourbons would taste far, far different from wood bourbons. These are aged gently and won’t pick up the oaky characteristics from the barrel. That’s because they aren’t fully matured, giving you a younger bourbon with a grainier taste.
Grain bourbon would taste like barley, corn, rye, or wheat. There may also be notes of cornbread or hot cereal.
Barley is one of bourbon’s significant ingredients. If there is more barley in bourbon, expect nutmeg flavors, making it taste a bit more like Eggnog, toasted nuts, or even pumpkin pie!
The caramel taste in bourbons makes the drink taste sweet and pleasant. Bourbon gets its caramel-ness from the charred oak wood barrels. Charring would caramelize the barrels’ wood sugars, which would create caramel and vanilla flavors.
Caramel and vanilla are evident in almost all types of bourbon, though some are sweeter than others. It would depend on how much time bourbon is spent in the barrel.
Besides caramel and vanilla, you may also taste chocolate, honey, butterscotch, custard, or maple flavors! This is great to taste if you’re a beginner.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are you ready to begin trying bourbon and get into the art of tasting its many flavors? Here are frequently asked questions to help you out!
1. How do you taste bourbon?
The art of tasting bourbon is an interesting one! First, we recommend using non-stem glass that allows your nose to fit in to smell your drink before taking a sip. Swirl your bourbon to dissipate the alcohol and get a better aroma. Don’t gulp your bourbon down but sip it slowly, allowing your tastebuds to get all the flavors!
Pro-tip: If you're new to tasting bourbon, we recommend using high-quality bourbons for an excellent experience. Brands like Buffalo Trace and Blanton's Single Barrel are great to start with. Four Roses are incredible for easy drinking, while Knob Creek offers bolder flavors!
Initially, you might taste sweet flavors, but as you continue practicing the art of tasting bourbon, you’ll identify even more.
2. How do you drink bourbon?
There are different ways you can drink bourbon. We highly recommend drinking bourbon neat or on the rocks. But if the flavor is too strong, you can always have it with water or mix it into cocktails.
Fun fact: Bourbon Sour, Kentucky Mule, Bourbon Sidecar, Manhattan, and Mint Julep are some famous cocktails featuring bourbon.
3. What’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Bourbon is a particular type of American whiskey! However, bourbon has specific guidelines to consider it as such. Bourbon needs to be made of at least 51% corn and is aged for at least two years in oak barrels.
Fun fact: Bourbon can’t be made outside America. Federal standards governing bourbon’s identity dictate that bourbon is a distinctive product of the United States! (*)
On the other hand, whisky is created by fermenting grain mash and is aged in oak barrels. There are different kinds of whisky depending on the location and production style.
Learn more: Does Bourbon Go Bad? How Long Does Bourbon Last?
Wrapping It Up
Who knew that there was so much to learn about bourbon regarding its flavor? But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There is so much to learn about bourbon and many other liqueurs. If you’re interested in delving into the specifics of liqueurs and other ingredients, take a look at our blog; we offer a ton of information about your favorite foods!