Update: Check out the digital download for a hi-res guide for bourbon lovers
If you follow Bourbonr on social media (primarily Twitter or Instagram) you’ll notice quite a few non-bourbon spirits. There are a couple reasons for this. One, it’s nice to change things up. Two, and more importantly, it’s fun to be a newbie again. The further we get into a hobby the harder it is to remember what it was like to be new. I see this a lot in the Facebook groups. New guy asks a question. People mock the question or make trolling comments. New guy never asks a question again. This guide is the questions I wanted to be answered when I got into bourbon. And, more recently the questions I’ve asked about Rum and Armagnac.
First, the basics. “What is Bourbon?” Bourbon is distilled from a grain mash that is at least 51% corn. It can be distilled at no higher than 160 proof. It has to be aged in a new charred oak container. Made in America and bottled at higher than 80 proof with no extra additives or coloring.
What should I buy? (or, the dreaded “is this worth it?”)
This is a difficult question to answer. If you’re asking “can I resell this for a profit?” go look at Bottle Blue Book. My general rule is for $30 or less I’ll take a chance. Buy the bottle. Give it a review. Search for other reviews on blogs of r/bourbon of the same bottle. Bottles like Henry McKenna, Eagle Rare, Old Granddad 114 and Four Roses Small Batch make no bottle worth more than $30. At least when you’re starting out.
Here is my Bourbonr Beginner’s starter pack:
By starting with these bottles you save yourself a lot of buyers remorse. You shouldn’t spend $100 on the third bottle of bourbon you’ve ever purchased. Even if it came with a cool box and catchy name. Stick with this list. In this list is a range a different Bourbon mash bills. Next, read “Bourbon Mash Bill Explained”. You’ll start to understand the difference between a high rye bourbon and a wheated bourbon. Sit down and taste OGD 114 next Maker’s Mark. The difference is shocking. Which one did you like better? If it was OGD, try other bourbons from Jim Beam. Baker’s or Knob Creek would be a good next step. If you preferred Maker’s Mark, try Larceny or Weller Special Reserve. They’re also wheated bourbon’s. This leads to the next topic.
Why do bourbon’s taste different? Tasting the differences in the bourbon mash bill is one component to the flavor profile. There are a lot of factors that play a role. The barrel and aging process has the greatest effect on the bourbon in your bottle. How long it was aged and the part of the warehouse the bourbon was aged create different tastes. The longer the bourbon is in the barrel the more oak and dry notes it will pick up. Read through “What Affects A Bourbon’s Taste” for a more in-depth explanation.
How do I taste/review bourbon? “I read people’s tasting notes but I don’t taste any of that!” Tasting notes can be misleading. If not outright garbage. But, different bourbon’s have different flavor profiles. Generally, the older the bourbon, the oakier or drier it will taste. Tasting a high rye bourbon? Expect more mint and black pepper spice. I try to focus on five major taste categories with beginners: Sweet, Spice, Fruit, Wood and grain. You can read “How to Taste Bourbon” for a more in-depth dive into tasting notes. As a bonus, that post comes with bourbon homework!
While I’m partial to Bourbonr, there are a lot of great bourbon blogs out there. Here are a few good ones:
Still confused on where to go next? Visit distilleries and local whiskey bars if you can. Both places are usually a great source of knowledge. Join the Bourbonr Facebook group. Find local bourbon and whiskey groups. The key is to get involved. As a bonus, here is a list of the most frequently used bourbon and whiskey acronyms. This will get you started. I’ll follow up with a part two in a couple of weeks.