IDEAL for hosting a bourbon tasting event 

Bourbon – with the first syllable pronounced berr, not bor – is perhaps the quintessential American drink. Unique in flavour profile, colour and its primary ingredient of corn (for a whisky to call itself bourbon, its distillation ‘mash’ must be at least 51% corn) bourbon uses barrel ageing to achieve its characteristic finish. As such, it’s a drink with much complexity, both in its history and in its taste.

With autumn not too far away, we’re already thinking of activities to keep us busy as the nights draw in. Enter a bourbon tasting party with friends, with this distinctive whisky the ideal warming autumnal drink. 

If you’re throwing a bourbon tasting event and you’re wondering how to choose the right drinks for the occasion, then you’ve come to the right place. Read on to find out more.


First things first, you can’t host a bourbon tasting event if you don’t know how to taste. Nope, this thing isn’t as easy as simply knocking back a few snifters and declaring the whiskey ‘delicious’, 

Instead, as New Riff Distilling who host bourbon tastings events tell us, it’s important to learn how to taste bourbon properly. They gave us these pointers, which collectively are sometimes referred to as the ‘Kentucky Chew’, as the vast majority of bourbon is produced in the state:

  1. Study the colour – If the liquid is lighter, this represents a shorter aging time. A darker colour, on the other hand, means it’s older and has spent a longer time in the barrel, suggesting a more intense tasting experience. 
  2. Swish and Swirl – In a heavy bottomed rocks glass tumbler or traditional Glencairn glass, aerate the bourbon’s unique aroma compounds by swishing and swirling the drink in your glass. As with any distinctive alcoholic drink, it needs a little air to really open up its aromas.
  3. Sniff – After aerating, place your nose in the glass and breathe in primarily through your mouth. The aroma is actually where the complexity of flavours is found. 
  4. Sip and Savour – Sip gently and allow the bourbon to coat your mouth, making sure your tongue, palate (the roof of your mouth) and inner cheeks all come into contact with the liquid.
  5. Swallow– Only after swallowing will you be able to detect the bourbon’s smoothness and finish, and identify any lingering complexities. 

Some choose to add ice to their bourbon, preferring it ‘on the rocks’, but this can dilute the bold, complex flavours, especially if the ice is small and watery. If you don’t enjoy your spirits at room temperature, add one single, sturdy block of ice. Better still, many believe that adding just a little room temperature water to your bourbon dampens the taste of raw alcohol and allows for its complexities to come to the fore.


The world of bourbon is surprisingly vast, broad and intricate. As such, it might be a wise move to pick a theme for your tasting event, to focus minds and palates equally. For example, you could choose your drinks based on different styles of Bourbons – a traditional bourbon made of rye or a more leftfield bourbon made of wheat.

Alternatively, you could base your event around bourbons of a similar age, or bourbons of the same brand but different ages, or even bourbons only from the same distiller. Yep, there are themes within themes within themes…get precise!


The Glass – Generally speaking, the best type of glass for a bourbon tasting is a Glencairn whisky glass, which is tulip shaped and stemmed. Though many like to drink their whiskey from a straight edged glass (heavy bottomed tumblers are particularly popular), experts believe that this allows some of the aroma compounds to escape before you’re able to properly discern them. Aesthetically, however, a tumbler is great…food – or rather, drink – for thought, indeed.

A Tasting Glossary – For those diving into the brown watered world of bourbon for the first time, a glossary of different flavours and notes will be handy, allowing you to have the full lexicon at your disposal for discussing the bourbon’s complexity.

Pens and Notepads – Guests may want to take notes, scores and musings on their flavour experience as they swirl, sniff and sip.

Palate Cleansers – Bourbon is big, bold and sometimes bruising, and after several tastings, your palate can become overwhelmed. It’s a good idea, then, to have some palate cleansers to hand to refresh the taste buds. Corn chips are a common palate cleanser, here, and complement the corn used in the bourbon distilling process succinctly. 

Water – You can also refresh your palate using a little swill of water between tastings. Remember that some use water to ‘open up’ their whiskey’s flavour profile, too.


Food from the American South is the perfect companion to Southern booze, make no mistake. Indeed, since Bourbon is from the south of the states, it makes sense to pair it with this type of food. Sweet, smokey and full of light spices, the cuisine naturally pairs well with bourbon, so consider rustling up some finger food in this genre to help the party move along extra nicely. 

For nibbles to get the taste buds going, a bowl of lightly candied pecans or cashews works well with bourbon. The concentrated sweetness of  dried fruit is another perfect bourbon pairing match, so mix in some handfuls with your nuts.

We’re particularly fond of sweet and sticky ribs – maple syrup is also an iconic pairing with bourbon, the mild and subtle sweetness is divine with a glass – so consider cooking up a batch of maple glazed ribs alongside some sweet potato fries. 

Perhaps even better, bourbon and buttermilk fried chicken is a dream pairing in our eyes. After all, bourbon is from Kentucky, so it just makes sense, hence the proliferation of fried chicken and whiskey sours restaurants in London and beyond in recent years! 

While you can, of course, just order a bucket or two in from your local KFC, you could cook a copycat recipe at home if you’re feeling adventurous. Let us direct you to our article on how to make homemade KFC style chicken in 5 IDEAL steps for more on that.

If you’re after a dish that people can dig into if they’ve had a little too much bourbon, a hearty  jambalaya served up with some cornbread will do a good job of mopping up that excess bourbon.  

For a sweet treat, a complex dark chocolate works well with bourbon. Make some dark chocolate mousses and serve them in glasses or simply offer a few squares of premium, 70% cocoa stuff.


Unless you’re tasting every single bourbon under the sun (which we wouldn’t advise) then the actual tasting aspect of the evening probably won’t last all night.

To keep the party going, serve some classic bourbon cocktails. Some of the best include a Bourbon Sour, a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, the John Collins, a Kentucky Coffee and a Bourbon Sidecar. After a few of those, you might just be feeling like giving everyone a Kentucky Hug. 

As explained by the Whiskey Muse, a Kentucky Hug is a combination of three things; “When a person from Kentucky wraps their arms around you in an embrace”,  “The warm sensation you feel in your upper body after drinking some whiskey” and “The feeling you have before adjusting your belt a few notches from eating an enormous amount of Kentucky Fried Chicken”. Hey, that sounds like a fine end to a tasting event to us!

If a bourbon tasting night has you wishing to explore the world of whisky further, then check out these 7 Scottish island holidays IDEAL for wildlife and whisky

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