A Bartender's Guide to Bourbon: Experts Share Best Bottles and Whiskey Tips

Top bartenders serve up tips on how to select and enjoy the fabled Kentucky spirit.
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Bourbon. The liquid flag of the Bluegrass state. The lifeblood of Juleps and Derbies, the giver of "Kentucky Hugs," and if we’re talking aged expressions, the holy grail for spirits collectors (here’s looking at you, Pappy). “Bourbon is a quintessentially American brown spirit,” says spirits educator Josh Gelfand. 

But what is bourbon and what do you do with a bottle (other than drink it neat?). We tapped a group of top bartenders to weigh in on their favorite bottles, who made them, and what to do with them. 

Bourbon 101

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So what is bourbon? “There are seven laws that must be followed to consider a whiskey a true bourbon,” says Andrew Erickson of Nashville’s Fable Lounge. “Firstly, it must be made in the United States. The mash bill must be made of at least 51% corn and the distillate cannot come off the still at more than 160 proof (80% ABV). The whiskey must be aged in new charred American White Oak barrels and the spirit must enter the barrels at no more than 125 proof. Finally, bourbon cannot have any additional flavoring or colors added.”

Bourbon begins by distilling a fermented mash. “It’s a combination of cooked grains, usually corn, rye, barley, and/or wheat),” says category expert Erin Petrey. “The mash is made by creating a ‘distiller's beer,’ which is heated in a still at very high temperatures. It evaporates the alcohol off and condenses it into a clear spirit.”

That clear spirit is placed in new, charred oak barrels and allowed to age. “In order to be called ‘Straight’ bourbon, it must be aged for a minimum of 2 years,” she says. 

What does bourbon taste like?

Jim Beam distillers Freddie Noe (left) and his father, Fred Noe (right)

Jim Beam distillers Freddie Noe (left) and his father, Fred Noe (right)

Mashbills, processes, water sourcing, and aging time will range from distillery to distillery, but overall, this process creates a spirit that boasts a signature profile. “In general, bourbon will have notes of vanilla, caramel, some toffee, and the signature oakiness,” describes Greg Kong of Kimika. “Though there is variation—wheated bourbons tend to be slightly sweeter and have a mellower flavor profile, whereas a bourbon with more rye in its mash bill takes on the characteristic spicier notes.”

Jacob Cantu, the beverage director of West Fork Whiskey Company, notes that these flavors are largely born from barrels. “Freshly charring a barrel caramelizes the sugars of the wood creating what is known as the "red layer." This layer lends those caramel, vanilla, butterscotch flavor notes most associated with bourbon. During maturation, the alcohol also interacts with the wood creating esterification reactions; these create polyphenols, which are your lighter and brighter flavor notes.”

While the likes of Van Winkle brethren are hailed as a bourbon lover’s prized pig. “Price does not correlate to quality!” says Caleb Cherry of the Kimpton Hotel Armory. “Affordable bourbons are good bourbons too! Just because a bottle is $200 doesn’t mean it’s a better bourbon than the $45 bottle. It’s about what tastes good to you, the people you’re enjoying it with, and the quality of life you are drinking to. Buy the bottle, look up the history, and enjoy the most American product on your home-bar.”

The Golden Rules of Bourbon

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There’s more to bourbon than Pappy Van Winkle. “Don’t feel like a great bourbon must be expensive: you can find equally delicious bourbons that won’t break the bank,” says Tim Knittel, Bourbon Steward-in-Residence for The Kentucky Castle. 

When you sip bourbon, use the "Kentucky Chew." “That term was coined by Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller of Wild Turkey. Roll the bourbon around your mouth for three to four seconds really coating your tongue before you swallow,” says Knittel.

Adding a few drops of water "opens" whiskey. "Some bars will present a neat pour with a dropper bottle of purified water. Adding just two or three drops will cause the bourbon to release much of the trapped aromatics and complex flavors. A really local way of ordering is to ask for ‘a splash of branch’ – getting a touch of limestone water to bring out a bourbon’s complex character," Knittel says.

It’s okay to order a bourbon cocktail. “While bourbon is amazingly neat, it’s also a fantastic cocktail base,” adds Knittel. “Back in the early 1800s, bourbons were a top pick of the bartenders, and today’s craft bartenders have adopted the spirit with equal zeal. But if you really want to order like a local, don’t order a mint julep.” 

What to Do With Bourbon

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Now you’ve established a basic knowledge of bourbon, get drinking. “There is no wrong way to sip bourbon,” says Heather Wibbels, board chair of the Bourbon Women Association. “As long as you’re thoroughly enjoying your bourbon, you’re consuming it the way the makers intended.”

That said, Cantu prefers to sip a new bourbon “​In the words of the artists LMFAO…..shots, shots, shots, shots. I tend to drink my whiskey neat. I want to rediscover the flavors of the whisk(e)y each time. I try to pick up different notes and flavors as my palate develops."

When tasting, Petrey notes, “There are five major flavor families in bourbon: wood, grain, spice, sweet aromatics, and fruity and floral. Start there, then you can hone in on different flavors such as oak versus cedar, geranium versus rose, cinnamon versus clove, etc. Stone fruit, bananas, apples, honey, tobacco, and hay are also common flavors in bourbons.”

How to Drink Bourbon

“Bourbon is best drunk with friends,” says Wibbels. That said, her rule of thumb is, “I never make cocktails with bourbon I wouldn’t sip neat.” While it might seem like a tempting idea to get rid of a bottom-shelf bottle, it’s going to take a lot to mask those flavors.

Gold Rush

“A good Gold Rush is pretty much an unbeatable bourbon cocktail,” says Cherry. “The fresh citrus and sour from fresh squeezed lemon, balanced out by the sweetness of a good high-proof bourbon and backed by the richness of honey. My ‘secret trick’ is to add 2 dashes of orange bitters before I shake the daylights out of it.” 

Highball

“I will always say a really well made Highball will do it every time,” says Sailor Guevara of Sailor Guevara Experiences. “Premium bourbon in a highball glass with quality ice, premium chilled club soda, you want sharp effervescence in the bubbles and then a dash of bitters and a fresh citrus peel. I love the crisp assertiveness of a Highball - not to be confused with a whiskey and soda. There are many fantastic ways to add interest and intrigue to a Highball, for example, add a splash of an Amaro like Averna and you have a delicious Italian Highball.”

Outside of those two staples, get creative. "Paper Planes are a simple cocktail for apertivo hour, and combines some variation of bourbon, lemon juice, and amaro," says Derek Tormes of Lost Boy Dry Goods. "I also love a Smash: a type of julep that combines bourbon, simple sugar, and mint. Another favorite would be a Boulevardier, with whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari. You can't go wrong!"

What to Buy

The Cocktail Essential: Knob Creek 9

For bar cart use - be it sipping, sampling, swizzling or beyond, Knob Creek’s newest iteration is a new stalwart; spicy, sweet, with rich notes of caramel, fall flavors, and melted butter. The regular iteration of Knob Creek is an always-reliable home bar offering, but the new age statement (a revival after the brand reneged the older age statement back in 2016). While the brand is a backbar essential the 9-year-old is fresh and exciting. Familiar, but inviting and elevated. A wild good value. $36

The Budget Bottle: Old Grand-Dad Bonded

"My number one must have bourbon is, and always will be, Old Grand-Dad Bonded,” says Cantrell. “It’s high rye in its mashbill and is 100 proof, which makes it excellent for both cocktails and sipping...and shots.”

This bottle is a favorite of Flagship Restaurant Group’s Dustin Fox. “High proof and bold flavor; it’s great as a neat sipper and versatile in cocktails.”

Kim Haasarud seconds this. “It’s delicious. It doesn’t have the same kind of mouthfeel or complexities that, say, a Makers Mark or Michter’s have, but it’s pretty darn good for under $15 a bottle.” $11

The Barcart Staple: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

Amy Vandermark of Distill and Remedy’s Tavern vouches for Woodford. “Their commitment and dedication to the quality of their product is apparent.”

Jackson Cannon, the former bar director for Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne, finds the “approachable flavor profile mixes well, but is excellent when sipped—it will keep you from plowing through rare bottles but still show you are a great host!” $57

Baby’s First Bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch

“Anything Elijah Craig does is exceptional,” says Petrey. Cantrell confirms. “I also suggest always having a bottle of Elijah Craig Small Batch on your bar. It comes in at 94 proof and is always sure to impress your company when given to sip neat or on the rocks.” $33

The New Kid: Widow Jane 10 Year

“I love Widow Jane 10 year, which is a blend of bourbons assembled in Red Hook, Brooklyn that’s only ever made in a maximum of five barrels," says Gelfand. "You’ll get vanilla, cream, cinnamon, and nutmeg on the nose; almond, maple, orange, cherry on the palate; and a finish of charred oak and spice. 

One of the reasons Kentucky is so renowned for its bourbon is the water used to make it. It’s incredibly rich in minerals, particularly limestone. As it happens, New York has limestone rich water as well. Widow Jane trucks the water used to proof its bourbons from the area around the Rosendale Mines in Upstate New York. Those are the same mines that produced the limestone used to make cement to build monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.” $74

The Flex: Henry McKenna 10

“Make sure to grab a bottle of Henry McKenna….if you can find it.” describes Cantrell. “It’s a 10 year, bottle-in-bond bourbon that is full of depth of complexity, which won it the 2019 Whiskey of the Year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition!"

Cherry agrees. “This is my favorite bottle of bourbon, hands down. Fantastically mellow, rich with caramel, and vanilla. Not overly sweet. Perfectly enjoyed over a large cube to help knock down those harsh alcohol vapors but still capture all the flavors it has to offer.” $60

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