Kentucky is known as the bourbon capital of the world. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), in 2020, the state counted over 9 million barrels of aging bourbon and filled more 2 million, breaking the state record for the second year in a row. The stats serve as a testament to just how massive the Bluegrass State’s bourbon industry truly is.

Louisville native and spirits expert Dante Wheat has a personal connection to bourbon. “What I appreciate most about bourbon is, it’s an art that requires patience. You can’t rush it,” Wheat says. “If you want good bourbon whiskey, you have to wait four to five years. It’s one of the last big businesses that’s built around waiting; most of the big businesses are built around what can be done immediately [or] as soon as possible. Bourbon can’t be like that, and never will be like that.”

Wheat pursued a career in bartending after deciding medical school wasn’t for him. He says he always knew he wanted to work in a restaurant but didn’t know in what capacity. “I wanted to go the path of being a cook, but I hate being hot — so, the next best thing was bartending,” Wheat says. He walked into Louisville-based restaurant, 8UP, without any prior knowledge of bartending, but convinced management to hire him as a server’s assistant — and within two months, he became a bartender for the restaurant, he says.

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The now-six-year vet currently owns a spirits-based content and consulting company, Raw Pineapples. and acts as beverage director of Louisville Thoroughbred Society, a members-only club focused on off-track betting.

Even though visiting bars looks a little different now amid the pandemic, Wheat believes bars are essential to human connection, especially when whiskey is involved. “I’ve noticed that the most real conversations I’ve had with people are either in a bar or over a glass of whiskey,” he says. “For me personally … I always remember who I was with, what we talked about, and how the place made me feel.”

With VinePair’s annual Bourbon Month in full swing, we tapped into Wheat’s expertise on how to drink bourbon, according to an expert.

In a cocktail, for bourbon newbies

New to the world of bourbon? No problem. Wheat recommends enjoying a Gold Rush, made with bourbon, honey syrup, and lemon juice, as an entryway to the spirit. If the drinker thinks the Gold Rush is too sweet, Wheat recommends scaling back to a classic Old Fashioned.

And if the Old Fashioned is too much? “If they think it’s too much, we can cut it with soda, tonic, or do something else to make it more along the lines of what will be perfect for them,” he says. He then scales back on the mixers so the drinker can taste more of the nuances of the bourbon.

Wheat’s end goal is to get drinkers to the point where they can appreciate bourbon on the rocks. He says, even if they don’t enjoy it the first time, they can “appreciate the flavors that go into it instead of just looking at it as alcohol, it’s an art that took someone years to perfect.”

On the rocks

“For me, on the rocks, is as close to ideal as you can get,” Wheat says. “The way I drink whiskey is neat with a splash of room-temperature water on it, just to knock off the heat.”

Adding a hint of water or a cube or two of ice helps to expand the flavors of the bourbon, and can help beginners pick up flavor notes they wouldn’t typically taste due to the heat of the proof.

Wheat believes that “for most people, on the rocks is ideal because it creates a milder but more flavorful spirit — something that’s more open, more enjoyable. You really get the essence of everything that’s in that spirit versus drinking it neat because more often than not, you’re getting the heat more than anything, and then the flavor after it.”

In an improved whiskey cocktail

Fans of an Old Fashioned or Sazerac, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail is best, Wheat says. For bourbon aficionados looking for a boozier option (outside of enjoying their spirit neat or on the rocks) this recipe calls for 2 ounces of bourbon, a bar spoon each of Maraschino liqueur, Demerara sugar, and absinthe; four dashes each of Peychaud’s bitters and Angostura bitters; and a lemon peel for garnish.

Then, voila! You’ll have a delicious bourbon-forward cocktail. Wheat adds, “It’s complex and it keeps your palate more interested than an Old Fashioned.”