America’s homegrown whiskey has become one of the most popular pours around. And with so many bottles flooding the market, the backbar has turned into a crowded landscape, one that could easily overwhelm the average drinker.
So we found a spirit guide. Beau Williams, the owner of Kansas City’s Julep, lauded for having one of the country’s most outstanding bourbon selections, shares his rules for picking, sipping and mixing America’s favorite spirit.
Step one is to learn how to decode bourbon labels, says Williams. “Bourbon is a very broad category,” he says. “It’s important to know what the wording means.” For example, he always looks for the phrase straight bourbon.
“Straight is what you want to look for first and foremost when you’re searching the shelves,” he says. “It means they’re not adding anything to or adulterating the product, so you’re getting the real deal.”
He also recommends looking for the age statement on the label, although he’s quick to note that you won’t always find it. And especially if it’s from a newer producer, that often means that bourbon is on the younger side. By law, straight bourbon must be aged for at least two years.
“If you’re spending more than $40, you’re probably doing it wrong,” says Williams. Of course, if you’re a collector looking for extra-aged Pappy Van Winkle, expect to pay a premium. But for those just starting out, affordable bourbons abound. Williams recommends Wild Turkey 101 (“wonderful juice at a reasonable price point,”) and bottlings from Four Roses and Heaven Hill (brands from the latter include Henry McKenna, Evan Williams and J.T.S. Brown, among others).
While the flavors of bourbon can be quite different from Scotch whisky, Williams recommends sipping a neat pour from a Glencairn glass, a curved vessel typically reserved for scotch. “Aroma is a huge part of your bourbon experience,” says Williams. “You need a glass that lets you capture the aroma—caramel-y, nutty, etc.—to get you excited and cue up the rest of your senses.”
A shot glass won’t enhance this experience, he says, but a glass with a broad base and tapered top “to capture aromas and funnel them upwards” will do the trick. In lieu of a Glencairn, he sometimes uses Old Fashioned or rocks glasses with a similar, slightly tapered shape.
“Water is your friend, and don’t be afraid of it,” says Williams. “People think there’s only one way to drink bourbon, and that’s wrongheaded. Water is not a dealbreaker whatsoever.” The current trend for uncut, unfiltered, barrel-strength whiskeys means that most bourbons actually benefit from some dilution, he says. “It takes off the heat and spice notes and lets the sweetness shine through.”
“Bourbon has big, bold flavors,” says Williams. “A little bit of ice and water won’t kill the thing.” However, he’s wary of small, watery pieces of ice that dilute a spirit too quickly. “I prefer to take my time, and I want a similar experience from when I start to when I finish. Solid ice is never a bad idea.” For home use, he recommends silicone molds to freeze sizable chunks that chill effectively but melt slowly.
“An Old Fashioned can really turn people on to how wonderful a bourbon experience can be without drinking it on its own. Ice, a little bit of sugar and bitters can help bridge the flavor profiles, make it more palatable.” The goal, he says, is to accentuate the flavors of bourbon rather than mask them, and “the classic Old Fashioned does that wonderfully.”
“There’s no wrong way to consume bourbon,” says Williams. The only mistake is “not enjoying it while you’re doing it.