What Does Bourbon Taste Like? How to Taste Bourbon?

Bourbon is one of the most popular drinks in the world because of its unique taste. However, it can be difficult to describe that taste in words. What does bourbon taste like?

True bourbon tastes predominantly of vanilla, caramel, and charred oak. Some of the other flavors that are used to describe the taste of Bourbon are as follows:

  • Cinnamon
  • Apple
  • Chocolate
  • Pepper
  • Spice
  • Honey
  • Rich
  • Fruity
  • Sweet
  • Honey
  • Citrus

Often, flavors are added to bourbon, altering the taste. Examples of these added flavors are cinnamon and apple. However, U.S. laws require that no flavors should be added to bourbon to call it ‘bourbon.’ When flavors are added to it, distillers should call them whiskey liquors. And by law, they are not true bourbons; should producers label them as such.

How to taste bourbon properly? To taste bourbon correctly, follow these five steps:

  1. Use the Proper Drinking Glass
  2. Smell the Bourbon
  3. Take Note of the Color
  4. Take a Sip
  5. Add a Few Drops of Water

Read on to learn more about the taste of bourbon, how it’s made, and how to taste bourbon properly.

What Does Bourbon Taste Like?

Bourbon tastes predominantly of vanilla, caramel, and charred oak. Some other common flavor notes used to describe bourbon are cinnamon, apple, chocolate, honey, fruity.

Bourbon is labeled as “The” American whiskey as only distilleries within the U.S. are legally permitted to produce it. The primary ingredient of bourbon is corn, and many distillers couple it with rye or barley.

You can call the bourbon a ‘straight bourbon’ if it fulfills all the requirements below. These are laws governing bourbon production for U.S. consumption.

Producers must:

  • Make the bourbon in the U.S. only
  • Bottle it at 40% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 80% proof
  • Ensure that the grain mixture is at least 51% corn
  • Enter the distillate into the container for aging at no more than 62.5% or 125 proof
  • Age it in new, suitable charred oak barrels or containers
  • Distill the mixture to no more than 80% alcohol by volume or 160 proof

‘Straight’ bourbon has no artificial flavorings or colorings and should have aged at least two years. If the aging process is less than four years, the producer must state it on the bottle’s label. They must also base the age on the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

When the bourbon’s label is ‘blended,’ this indicates that it may contain additional flavoring, coloring, or unaged neutral grain spirits. Nevertheless, these blended bourbons must contain at least 51% straight bourbon.

What does bourbon taste like? The taste of bourbon varies depending on where its ingredients are from, how it is produced, and how long it ages.

Drinkers describe the taste of bourbon in different ways. Some of these flavors are:

  • Vanilla
  • Caramel
  • Charred oak
  • Cinnamon
  • Apple
  • Chocolate
  • Pepper
  • Spice
  • Honey
  • Rich
  • Fruity
  • Sweet
  • Honey
  • Citrus

Bourbon vs whiskey taste – What does bourbon taste like compared to whiskey?

Bourbon has a sweeter taste than whiskey. It also has hints of smokiness because of the charred oak aging process it goes through. Bourbons also tend to be heavier in texture than most scotch whiskeys. Bourbon tastes like vanilla, caramel, and charred oak. Whiskey has a spicy, peaty flavor, sometimes with maple tasting notes.

Bourbon Aging Limits

In the United States, there are no required minimum aging limits to bourbon. You can call your product ‘bourbon’ after less than a year of aging. But in Europe, you cannot refer to a drink as ‘whisky‘ unless it has aged for a minimum of three years.

The exception is the bottled-in-bond bourbon. This type of bourbon has to be aged for at least four years. For straight bourbon, it should be aged for at least two years.

So, the bourbon will taste based on the added flavorings, and the years it has aged. If it’s straight bourbon, it would taste like oak, vanilla, or caramel.

The Taste of Different Brands of Bourbons

Blended bourbons produced by a variety of brands may have a specific taste not present in other brands. Here are the top 7 brands and the taste of each.

1. High West Bourye 2017

This straight bourbon comes with a delectable aroma of nuts and oak. The flavor is predominantly vanilla and raspberries, coupled with a spicy tinge that leaves your palate clamoring for more.

how does bourbon taste

2. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Year

This bourbon teases your senses with oak wood and tobacco. It also releases the sweet flavors of apples, cherries, and caramel, having matured for a considerable time.

3. Widow Jane 10 Year Old Bourbon

The flowery aroma leads you to the taste of burned sugar and charred oak. Moreover, the age is just right for a light, fresh drink during weekends.

4. Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch

Allow your taste buds to savor the dark caramel and peppery flavor of this bourbon. The deeper notes also transform the sharp aftertaste into a sugary mixture.

5. Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey

The citrus and spice streaks lend a rounded and tangy flavor with caramel, cocoa, chocolate, and cinnamon blended into a velvety, creamy liquid.

6. Evan Williams Black Label

This bourbon is popular for its quality and value. The Black Label bourbon taste is of brown sugar, and the caramel, vanilla, and nutmeg pleasant-tasting finish.

7. 1792 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon

It teases the taste buds with cinnamon and caramel along with an incredible tint of charred oak. Notes of spicy rye and citrus fruits also float to the surface in a blend of savory drinks.

8. Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style

This drink is on the bucket list of most wine enthusiasts as it has five distinctive flavors that you can savor.

9. Wild Turkey

The lingering taste of spice and pepper gives way to cinnamon and caramel sweet notes. Also, the smooth oak aroma provides the sipper with an unforgettable aftertaste.

10. W.L. Weller 12 Year Old

This bourbon’s ingredients are cereal and wheat flour. The whiskey entices drinkers to its exciting honey flavor, natural corn, and an oak blend of smashing succulent taste.

We’ve answered the questions, ‘What does bourbon taste like?’ and ‘How does bourbon taste?’ Next, let’s look at how distillers make bourbon so you can understand how it gets its unique taste.

How Is Bourbon Made?

Initially, producers made bourbon in Kentucky, USA. Kentucky is the ‘home of bourbon’ because of its abundant natural resources. This state produces around 90% of bourbon in the U.S. However, as the bourbon industry grew, producers have opened their distilleries in several states, such as Colorado, Wyoming, Michigan, Washington, Texas, New York, and many more states.

Additionally, you need specialized equipment to be able to make commercial bourbon. But here are the general steps you might want to know in straight bourbon production.

1. Select the Grains

It must have at least 51% corn with rye or malted barley. These components compose the ‘mash bill.’ They are stored in separate containers and are mashed individually. Each distillery has its percentages of these three components as well.

2. Choose Fresh Spring Water 

You should use fresh spring water when extracting the sugar from your grains. Kentucky was famous for its bourbon because it has a continuous source of this type of water. And many producers built their distilleries near these natural springs because of their crucial role in producing bourbon.

3. Allow Germination to Occur

In the germination process, the starch turns into simple sugars through the addition of an enzyme. Starch is a polysaccharide consisting of a string of monosaccharides. With this process, the starch becomes sugar that sweetens the mix, and then cellulose undergoes the malting process.

4. Cook the Grains

Cooking occurs with the grains undergoing different cooking temperatures. 

  • Rye – The temperature is 170 degrees Fahrenheit (77 degrees Celsius) with a medium length of cooking time.
  • Corn – The temperature is 220 degrees Fahrenheit (114 degrees centigrade) and with longer cooking time and pressure.
  • Barley – For barley, the temperature is 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Centigrade).

5. Add Yeast After Cooling the ‘Mash’

Most distilleries produce their natural yeasts by cultivating them using aseptic methods to prevent contamination from external yeasts. Bourbon producers have also grown their yeasts for years, and it’s a trade secret heavily guarded by their company. Many even have filed patents for their products.

how to taste bourbon

6. Allow the Mash to Ferment

When you add the yeast to the ‘mash’ in a fermenter, fermentation occurs. This fermentation process converts sugar to alcohol, which will produce 9% alcohol by volume. This liquid is commonly called beer. 

7. Distill the Mixture

You can now distill the resulting liquid. In distillation, you heat the mixture to produce alcohol in the form of vapors. Distillation machines have a regulated temperature of 172 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit (78 to 85 degrees Celsius) at the top for the gaseous alcohol collection. Typically, the alcohol collected has 60% alcohol by volume or 120 proof.

This distillate is placed in copper pots to allow catalytic reactions and improve the bourbon’s flavor. At the bottom, the temperature is 202 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (95 to 100 degrees Celsius) for beer production.

The grain residue and water accumulate at the bottom of the distiller as stillage. This stillage becomes a sour mash that producers sometimes add during the fermentation process.

8. Fill the Barrels

Producers must also use new barrels for bourbon or whiskey only. And the most common is the American white oak barrel, with a capacity of around 200 liters. One side of the barrel is left open for toasting. In toasting, the wood sugar at the top of the barrel is heated using low heat for 12 minutes to caramelize it.

The inside of the barrel further undergoes a stronger heat for 12 seconds as well. This process produces a charcoal layer. Afterward, the barrels are closed and then brought into the storage area.

9. Store the Barrels for Maturation

The barrels are then stored for maturation in warehouses with appropriate girdlers and bars to keep the barrels in place. Moreover, the warehouses’ temperature varies, with the topmost being hot during summer and the bottom area cold. Producers also rotate the barrels to maintain the uniformity of the temperature.

But some warehouses don’t rotate the barrels. They just mix barrels from various positions before bottling the resulting alcohol.

10. Transfer the Bourbon into Bottles

Producers use different bottles (glass and plastic) to market their products. The usual bottle sizes are 1,000 ml, 200 ml, 700 ml, and 750 liters. These bottles also come in various shapes, such as flat, square, or round.

To know the taste of bourbon, you have to know how to drink bourbon properly. See below for how to properly taste or drink bourbon.

How to Taste Bourbon Properly

How to taste bourbon properly? You can taste bourbon properly by following these steps:

1. Use the Proper Drinking Glass

To relish the taste of your bourbon correctly, use a Glencairn glass. This drinking glass is for avid bourbon drinkers. But, if you don’t have one available, you can use any tulip-shaped glass. Fill the glass up to less than half of its capacity.

2. Smell the Bourbon

Swirl the bourbon in your glass and allow the alcohol’s vapor to evaporate before bringing your nose to inhale the scent. Don’t bring your nose too close, as the alcohol’s aroma could ‘attack’ your senses. You should also position your nose above the rim to take in the smell gently.

3. Take Note of the Color

It’s good to observe the bourbon’s color because this will indicate its age: the darker the color, the older the whiskey. So, when it’s lighter, it’s younger; don’t expect a deeper taste.

4. Take a Sip

Take a sip, and then let it roll in your palate. Also, avoid having preconceived ideas about how the bourbon would taste. Just allow your taste buds to find out what superb flavors exist in your whiskey. You may want to close your eyes to focus on the sensation around your tongue as well.

5. Add a Few Drops of Water

A few drops of water would enhance the variety of flavors in your bourbon. But don’t add too much water because it will dilute your drink. Adding a few drops would also bring out other flavors coming from the combination of water and your bourbon ingredients.

Conclusion – What Does Bourbon Taste Like?

Bourbon tastes like vanilla, caramel, and charred oak – or any combination. However, blended bourbon will acquire the taste of the flavorings added to it. The most common are cinnamon and apple.

Bourbon drinkers also experience these flavors:

  • Vanilla
  • Caramel
  • Charred oak
  • Cinnamon
  • Apple
  • Chocolate
  • Pepper
  • Spice
  • Honey
  • Rich
  • Fruity
  • Sweet
  • Honey
  • Citrus

How to taste bourbon properly? To taste bourbon correctly, follow these five steps:

  1. Use the Proper Drinking Glass
  2. Smell the Bourbon
  3. Take Note of the Color
  4. Take a Sip
  5. Add a Few Drops of Water

You may also find other flavors in your bourbon. Each individual has a unique taste; so, you may have a diverse experience with your first taste. But, the best tip to remember is to enjoy and have fun while savoring your drink.