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How to drink bourbon

Updated on June 5, 2016

If you've never liked bourbon, and have avoided it because it tastes too strong, perhaps you've been drinking it wrong. I once visited Louisville, Kentucky, for three days on a business trip. I asked local people what Louisville is known for, and they emphatically said they took pride in their pretty women, fast horses, and great bourbon. (Some declared it was pretty horses and fast women, but I found no evidence of that: the horses I saw looked fast, but not pretty.) This intrigued me so I became determined to learn as much as I could about local customs.

Jockey Silks Eclectic 150 Bourbon Selection

A guide for beginners

Having rarely ventured beyond the craft beer world, I decided to embark upon a bourbon drinking adventure. Fortunately, the Galt House Hotel offered an in-house bourbon bar, Jockey Silks, that boasts 150 different quality bourbons. The bartenders are veteran hosts of the "Urban Bourbon Trail," and, as such, are skillful guides to greenhorns. I learned that high quality, well-aged bourbon is fragrant and delicious, and if savoured slowly and with good company, is a social lubricant that leaves no ill effects. However, there are some important do's and don'ts which must be followed:

1. Choose your companions carefully. There was a national agriculture equipment conference going on nearby, so I elbowed up to the bar with a mixture of insurance company executives and genuine cowboys. It made for interesting conversation, but the occasional faux pas.

2. Eat first. The cowboy next to me at the bar started tossing back bourbon shots on an empty stomach, and lost the fine motor control of his legs in less than an hour. Not much later in the evening, his bar stool bucked him off onto the floor. In the commotion, he lost his black hat which was sad because he looked much better with it on. (A person can't look like a cowboy with just hat-head but no hat.)

3. Sip, don't gulp your bourbon. At a minimum of eight dollars a shot, it's meant to be savoured slowly, not tossed back with a grimace followed by the exclamation: "It burns on the way down!" Some people learned to drink watching John Wayne movies. Everyone loves the Duke, but you don't want to end up looking like Rooster Cogburn. (What goes down fast, comes up faster!)

4. Especially on the first drink, with the bourbon flowing warmly down the back of the throat and into ones digestive system, do not take a deep breath. The alcohol evaporates too quickly, drying the membranes and causing explosive coughing fits, which can send cowboy hats flying through the air in random directions.

5. Drink it "neat," or "on the rocks" (fresh ice) with no added contaminants. With more than 200 years experience, premium bourbon makers spent years aging and perfecting it, so why mix it with soda pop? Be a purist! After four or five of these, the women are guaranteed to look even prettier, and, well, the horses really shouldn't. (If they do, please go back to your room.)

6. Pace yourself. I limited myself to only four in two hours. It wasn't my fault that the cowboys bought a round after that, and it turned out to be five (or six), because it was important to be sociable. And, I was needed to help my new friend back onto his bar stool. (This was ok, because I learned a great deal about post hole diggers, ex-wives, flawless children, and silo liners.)

7. Remember what floor your room is on. With 25 stories to choose from, the cowboy selling post hole diggers stepped off the elevator on the 9th, but should have waited till the 11th; the doors shut quickly, and he staggered off for the rest of the evening, muttering something about looking for his horse. We assembled a floor-by-floor search party to round him up, with no success. (I hope his boss eventually found him. We returned to "The Silks" later that evening to be comfortable while searching, and found his lost hat, which was cause for celebration.)

So, relax and take your time drinking bourbon. It's meant to enhance life experiences, and it's delicious. But, it must be respected: you wouldn't want to end up losing your hat, your room, and possibly your horse, especially if it is a pretty one.


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