How To Order Bourbon At The Bar Like A True Connoisseur

Whether you're a seasoned whiskey drinker or just starting to dip your toes into the world of bourbon, learning how to order properly can significantly enhance your overall bar-going experience. From choosing the right brand to knowing all there is to know about proofs and barrels, ordering bourbon like a pro isn't just about increasing your bourbon vocabulary but taking your drinking game to the next level.

After all, in many bars, bourbon isn't just a drink, it's a way of life. Crafted with pride and served with style, this uniquely American whiskey is made from a mash of corn and aged to perfection in previously unused charred oak barrels. Nearly all bourbon for sale is made in Kentucky, which is home to more than 95 distilleries devoted to the craft.

From the subtle nuances of the mash bill to the toasty, woody notes from the barrel, bourbon is a drink to be savored, whether you opt for a standard 80 proof whiskey (the minimum proof for bottling) or want to experience a richer, bolder, uncut flavor with cask-strength bourbon that hasn't been watered down.

To truly indulge in the finer tastes of this spirit, however, you'll need to know what to ask for when you step up to the bar. As with so many situations in life, it helps to have a plan. So get ready to raise a glass — it's ​​time to embrace your inner connoisseur and become a true expert in all things ordering bourbon.

Be specific when ordering bourbon

If you want to learn how to order bourbon like an expert, you can't just ask for "a bourbon." This is a dead giveaway to the bartender that you either don't care, or don't know much about this type of whiskey. Instead, it helps to keep a specific bourbon brand in mind.

Consider that not every bar will have a wide selection of bourbon, so you might have to go with one of the basics to start. Top bourbon brands you'll find in most bars around the United States include Wild Turkey, Evan Williams, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Bulleit, and Woodford Reserve.

However, there's no harm in asking the bartender for a suggestion. Small-batch, low-proof bourbons like Woodford Reserve or Four Roses are often recommended for novice drinkers. In an interview with VinePair, Mike Zell, bar manager at the Los Angeles outpost of Girl & the Goat, noted that "[Four Roses] has great complexity but is also smooth, making it great for beginners. I find it great to drink neat, but it also makes a great Old Fashioned with its honey notes...It's a great pick for someone who is interested in trying a bourbon but isn't quite sure what to go for."

Sticking to a budget? You can still drink well. There's no shame in asking for a recommended brand under a specific dollar amount; there are plenty of perfectly good, reasonably priced options to choose from.

Neat or on the rocks

When you've chosen your brand, let your bartender know how you'd like the bourbon served. Whether you want it neat or on the rocks, be sure to state the brand first and then the serving preference. For example, you might say, "I'll have Wild Turkey bourbon on the rocks."

Whiskey connoisseurs will tell you that to truly savor the spirit you should go for "neat," or served at room temperature in a snifter glass. This tulip-shaped glassware's design allows you to slowly enjoy the subtle complexities of the bourbon's aroma as your hands warm the drink to draw out flavors further.

But for those who prefer chilled bourbon, ordering it "on the rocks" or over one large ice cube is the way to go. However, be warned — adding water will dilute the intended flavor of your drink. Make sure to opt for a single cube or a few big rocks to avoid taking away from the bourbon's intended flavor. (Yes, the type of ice you order makes a difference.) Larger ice cubes melt slower, giving you more time to enjoy your drink without it becoming too diluted.

Ask for a flight

Still unsure which bourbon to order? Ask your bartender if they offer a tasting flight. With a flight of three to four glasses, you'll be able to compare sips and appreciate the unique flavors and aromas of each selection. This is also a great way to identify your bourbon-drinking preferences. Learning to take in the warmth, richness, and depth of different complex tastes will make it that much easier to feel confident when ordering the spirit at any bar. 

Once you're ready to explore more cultivated flavors, try moving up to a higher-proof, single-barrel bourbon. You might walk up to the bar and say, "I'll have Knob Creek bourbon on the rocks." The standard pour for whiskey is 1½ ounces, but if you'd like a double or a triple, just add that to your order after the brand name: "Knob Creek, double, neat." See, you sound like an expert already. That's certainly worth a toast.