If you’ve never tried bourbon, but are considering it, it’s easy to get lost among the myriad of brand labels and price ranges. Bourbon can be a strong drink, even for experienced connoisseurs, and there are lots of flavors and varieties to choose from. So, it’s important that you find one to fit your tastes and needs. This handy guide will help you to find the best bourbon for beginners, and may even give you some new ideas, even if you’re a seasoned bourbon vet.
How to decide which varieties to taste
Lots of experts tend to agree that you should try several brands and varieties. The easiest way to do this is to have a sort of bourbon- tasting that features many options. In order to do this properly, you’ll want to taste not only different brands, but brands across different price ranges, as well. By doing this, you’ll be able to taste the difference between a cheap, poorly-made bourbon and a good, quality bourbon, and decide which one you prefer.
What to look for
So, what should you look for when searching for the best bourbon for beginners? You’re looking for something that isn’t too sweet, too smokey, or overly complex. Patrick Garrett of Bourbon & Banter says “A good starter bourbon tends to be lower proof with an abundance of vanilla and caramel notes which are more approachable to the novice bourbon drinker.” Basically, you’re trying to get a feel for what good, simple, classic bourbon tastes like before moving on to anything more complex.
You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a premium, designer bottle. It’s a good idea to try a mid-range variety first. It would be massively disappointing to buy an expensive bottle, only to discover that you didn’t like that variety. Plus, lots of the more pricey options feature flavor palettes that aren’t typical of most bourbons, so they aren’t the best choice when you’re just starting out. And, if you do discover that you like something pricey, it would be heartbreaking to find that you could only afford to buy and drink it on special occasions. But, that doesn’t mean that top-shelf bourbons don’t have a place in your experimental taste test. Lots of experts break out “the good stuff” as the last tasting, just to give tasters a taste and something to compare the other options to.
The Mash Bill
Bourbon is made primarily from grains, and the type of grains that the bourbon is comprised of (referred to as the mash bill), make a huge difference in its taste. There will be three major types of bourbon you’ll notice while you’re shopping. There are low-rye, high-rye and wheated varieties. Rye is traditionally the type of grain that bourbon is made from. It gives it a spicy taste, so the more rye, the more spice you get. If you find high-rye varieties to be too spicy for you to drink straight, you may find that you like them better in cocktails with added sweeteners to cut down on the spice and burn. Wheated varieties, as the name suggests, are made from wheat, as opposed to rye, and tend to be sweeter. They can also be easier to drink, which make them a good choice for some beginners. So, it’s a good idea to try all three varieties in order to find which you like best.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon (approximately $30):
Buffalo Trace is a low-rye recipe, which means there are notes of spice without the spice being too overpowering. It’s age isn’t stated, which most likely means that it’s between 6-8 years old. This bourbon has a deep amber color, and a sweet taste. It has complex aromas of vanilla, caramel and mint, and flavors of brown sugar, spice, toffee, and anise. The finish is smooth and long- lasting. The combination of its sweet taste and low alcohol content make it easy to drink, which is great for beginners.
Jim Beam Black (approximately $23):
Jim Beam is the best-selling bourbon in the world. Recently, Jim Beam Black was one of several Jim Beam varieties to win silver medals at the New York International Spirits Competition. It’s a low-rye variety, and you may notice that it’s a bit sweeter than some of its peers. This is because it’s made from about 15% rye and around 75% corn, the corn being what adds the sweetness to it. It has vanilla, caramel and corn aromas, with similar flavors of vanilla, caramel, spices and oak. It’s been aged for 8 years in oak casks. The aging makes this bourbon variety smooth, and the oak casks give it a great flavor.
Maker’s Mark (approximately $25-$30):
Maker’s Mark is considered to be the world’s most recognizable bourbon brand. This is because it’s pretty easily obtainable, not just in the United States, but all over the world. It’s got a low alcohol content (It’s 90 proof, which is lower than some other brands). It’s also very sweet because it’s a wheated bourbon. It’s got lots of vanilla and caramel flavors, and its sweet taste coupled with its smooth finish make it a treat for beginners and experts, alike.
Basil Hayden’s (approximately $50):
Although this brand is slightly more expensive than some of the others on this recommendation list, it’s well worth the money. It’s light and refreshing with citrus flavor notes, and just a little complex with the addition of spice and floral notes. It’s a high-rye variety, so it’s a bit spicy. But it’s also smooth, with a low- alcohol content (80 proof, which is the lowest on this list). It’s great on its own or in cocktails, making it a great choice for a high-rye bourbon for beginners.
As with any kind of alcohol, if you’ve never tried it, the best way to tell whether or not you’ll like it is to try a variety of makes and brands. Start off with a brand that has a low-alcohol content, like the ones featured on the recommendations list. And, try types with different mash bills so that you’ll know whether you prefer your bourbon to be more sweet or more spicy. No matter what you end up choosing, you’re sure to have fun experimenting on your journey to find the best bourbons for beginners.