In Kentucky, bourbon is more than a drink. It is a way of life. In the Bluegrass State, we’re surrounded by so much bourbon, that it’s not a matter of if you are going to drink it, it is when or how you will drink it.

Known as “brown water” in the state, bourbon is technically “bourbon” because of the water. The water in Kentucky is renowned for its flavor and quality, due to the fact that it flows through limestone before it enters the water system. Something in that limestone makes the horses grow stronger, the bluegrass seem brighter and the bourbon taste better.

kentucky bourbon

An impressive bourbon collection by most standards

Bourbon is technically produced only in the United States, and, more specifically, Kentucky. It is comprised of 51 percent corn grain mixture and aged in a new barrel that has been charred on the inside. Those technicalities are what we hang our hat on in Kentucky. Anything else is just whiskey to us.

When we say that bourbon is a way of life in Kentucky, we mean it. There are multiple societies devoted to bourbon aficionados in this state; in Louisville alone, there are five major ones, two of which are for women only. Bartenders strive to be the most prolific on the subject of bourbon, and frankly, in Kentucky, they better be fluent or they will be out of a job.

When you have the privilege of coming to our fair state and drinking at one of our restaurants or bars, there are some understood rules on how to drink bourbon. Here’s what you need to know.

How to Drink Bourbon

  1. Name the brand first, then how you want it served. Example: “I’ll take a Maker’s and soda. I’ll take an Old Forester and ginger.”
  2. There are only four mixers you are allowed to order with your bourbon: water, soda, Diet Sprite and ginger ale. That’s it. If you order a bourbon with any sort of Coke (or Pepsi) product, an alarm goes off in the building. It’s obvious you’re clueless about the topic.
  3. Learn the basic bourbon cocktails. These include the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Mint Julep. These are your go-tos if you don’t decide to drink anything from #2.
  4. Get to know the mid-level bourbons, such as Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, Evan Williams and Four Roses. You don’t have to hit a home run and only drink Pappy van Winkle all the time.

Now that we have those rules in place, we can go out together. But before we do, a few more points of note …

sb drink bourbon like kentuckian

Just a sampling of a private collection of bourbon.

Insider Information

There are a few other rules you need to know if you want to be on your bourbon game. These include but are not limited to:

1. We don’t drink Mint Juleps all the time. These are pretty much reserved for the latter part of April and May, when Derby season heats up. People never order them in restaurants or bars any other part of the year. They are delicious, but they are special here. If you come for Derby, you must drink one; it is a rite of passage. But don’t go ordering one in winter or the bartender will look at you funny.

2. Don’t come here running your mouth about bourbon or how to drink it. Chances are the person next to you is the master distiller of a huge bourbon distillery, and you would never know it. These bourbon people are thick through our society, much like the horse people. You can spit and hit someone with some sort of tie to the bourbon business.

3. Related to #2, master distillers are lifetime jobs, like appointments to the Supreme Court. And, they are all interwoven. Members of the Jim Beam family were the master distillers at Heaven Hill for many, many years until their recent retirement. Master distillers all have “the gift,” which is the palate for tasting every nuance in every batch of bourbon. Most have been in place many years at their distilleries, and there are two new younger ones: Denny Potter at Heaven Hill and Marianne Barnes at Old Taylor Distillery (she is the first woman master distiller, by the way). Drop their names around, and people will think you know what you’re talking about.

4. People drink bourbon here like normal people drink beer or wine. Let me translate that for you another way. When Kentuckians travel, especially to the beach, they all bring their own bourbon, for fear that their brand is not sold in out-of-state places. And they drink bourbon on the beach like others would drink a beer. Yeti cups and Tervis tumblers are always filled up with ice, soda/water and bourbon on the sand. They know no other way.

5. The more fancy the bourbon drink, the less chance you have of a Kentuckian drinking it. All that filler is ruining your bourbon! You need to be able to taste it.

6. The best way to learn to drink bourbon is not just by reading this article. You need to invest some time and money and start tasting it on your own. People have a definite preference for one brand over another because every bourbon has a distinct flavor and personality.

7. Most of all, enjoy yourself. You’re welcome to come here anytime and visit us in the Bluegrass State. We’d love to teach you the ropes in person.


We won’t leave you hanging. Here are three more articles to help you dive in, feet first, to the Kentucky bourbon scene:

  • Want a great Mint Julep Recipe? Click here.
  • Want to see a Kentucky favorite julep cup? Click here.
  • Want to learn about Bourbon Distillery Tours? Click here.