The Beginning Bourbon YouTube channel launched last year as a “one stop shop” for anyone looking to learn the insider lingo of drinking and collecting bourbon. Episodes feature host Brian (last name not given) standing in front of expensive bottles or an idyllic lakeside vista, dissecting trends like infinity bottles and store picks. In one of his earliest episodes, posted Oct. 24, 2020, he unpacks the subject of neck pours.
“When we are referring to a ‘neck pour’ in the bourbon or whiskey world, we’re actually talking about two things,” Brian explains. Firstly, it is the initial pour from an unopened bottle, he says, using a sealed Wild Turkey 101 to demonstrate that most bottles have a neck, and the liquid inside often reaches some way up that space when it hasn’t been opened.
The second aspect of neck pours is much less literal and concerns the flavor of those first few ounces. Drinkers should not expect the “most robust” or “full” experience because whiskey needs time and oxygen to open up, he says. Brian adds that, when sharing the first dram of a bottle with someone who “knows” bourbon, he will always note: “By the way, it’s the neck pour.” This way, he communicates that they shouldn’t judge the whiskey wholly based on that sip.
There is a third and final dimension to neck pours that Brian fails, or chooses, not to mention. That among the whiskey geeks familiar with the term — a particularly “online” subset of drinkers versus all who might consider that they “know” bourbon — opinions on the topic are, at best, divided. In social media groups, online forums, and on whiskey podcasts, drinkers debate if and why the first pour is somehow inferior to the rest of the bottle. Most discussions revolve around exposure to oxygen, though seldom is there uniform agreement on whether oxidation improves or deteriorates a whiskey’s flavor, or makes no difference at all.
One thing no one can argue against, though, is that over the last year, neck pours have slowly become part of many drinkers’ parlance. Search “bourbon neck pour” on Facebook and you’ll encounter scores of posts on publicly viewable whiskey groups, with drinkers sharing amateur reviews using the very same caveat as Beginning Bourbon’s Brian.
“First ever pour of the OWA and I’m hooked, even the neck pour,” one drinker recently posted in the Greensboro Bourbon Society public Facebook group. (Abbreviating bottle names is another surefire way to show fellow bourbon collectors you’re also in the know, with OWA being short for the highly coveted Old Weller Antique.)
“Freshcrack Friday, y’all,” comments another in the also-public Bourbon Society of Greater Cincinnati group. “First time trying the JD SiB BP [Jack Daniels Single Barrel Barrel Proof] and even the neck pour is fantastic. Can’t wait to see how it opens over the next few weeks.”
In many instances, use of the term goes uncontested, which suggests a growing acceptance of the neck pour phenomenon. It could also just be a sign of the more convivial nature of participating in online regional drinking Facebook groups. For, in other arenas — particularly the r/Bourbon subreddit — debate rages. Some users are adamant that their bottles regularly improve with the second and third pours, after they’ve been exposed to more oxygen. Others respond with a barrage of anecdotal and scientific counterarguments, usually noting that what they’re tasting may be valid, but oxidation is not the cause.
“No one that’s been in this hobby or this industry for longer than five years has used the term neck pour or buys into this theory,” says Kristopher Hart, host of the ESPN radio show “Whiskey Neat” and manager of the Houston Bourbon Society.
Hart has become something of an online ambassador against the term and the very notion of neck pours. Rather than believing whiskey evolves with time and exposure to air, he says the differences people experience come from their palates.
“The first pour of any day is oftentimes more aggressive than the next pour because it takes time for your mouth to acclimate to drinking alcohol,” Hart says. (It stands to reason that in many cases, the first ounces of a new bottle will often be the first whiskey one might sip that day.) Hart also points to the less tangible and more emotional aspects of tasting, saying, “There are days that sushi sounds amazing, and there are days where steak sounds amazing.”
Above all, what frustrates him is not that people are experiencing or talking about these subtle differences in flavor, but what they’re attributing them to. “It implies that something’s going on with the neck portion of the bottle and that is just f*cking garbage,” Hart says. “It’s misleading.”
Part of why detractors such as Hart fight so vehemently against the idea of neck pours is that among believers, there is some disagreement over whether oxygen hurts or helps whiskey. There’s no concrete evidence of where and when the neck pour term first gained popularity, but it does seem more likely to have been born from the former stance — the idea that the first pour is actually inferior due to it being more oxidized than the rest of the bottle because it has had an increased exposure to air while sitting in the neck.
Of the two schools of thought, this one now represents the overwhelming minority, which is hardly surprising. As has been frequently pointed out, simple remedies for this hypothetical issue include tipping a bottle upside down, not to mention that the very motion of pouring means the first two ounces that reach a glass are not guaranteed to be those that sat in the bottle’s neck.
“If it was such a clear-cut phenomenon, whiskey makers wouldn’t put anything in the neck,” says Rachna Hukmani, founder and CEO of the (currently virtual) immersive tasting experience Whiskey Stories.
Before starting her business in 2014, Hukmani worked in whiskey innovation for major brands including Pernod Ricard and Edrington. During product prototyping for The Macallan 12 Double Cask, she had tasters open two new bottles and taste them side by side. Invariably, drinkers thought the second sample tasted smoother because their palates had adapted, she says, landing on a similar conclusion to Hart. It’s a phenomenon she’s since witnessed time and time again over the course of thousands of Whiskey Stories experiences.
Though the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence seems to disprove the neck pour theory, I wanted a clear-cut explanation on the impact of oxidation in bottled whiskey. So I reached out to Dr. Pat Heist, the co-owner and chief scientific officer at Kentucky’s Wilderness Trail Distillery and Ferm Solutions, Inc., a company that provides fermentation products, technical support, and training to hundreds of distilleries worldwide.
Heist agrees that there is a lot of support for the idea that whiskey somehow evolves in the bottle, but says there’s still no good answer as to why. Weighing up the potential influence of oxidation, he points to all the moments at which whiskey could oxidize before being bottled versus the little potential there is inside a sealed, almost-full container. There’s: distillation, years of barrel aging, and the vigorous motion of dumping aged whiskey out of the barrel.
“We’ve got all these areas where oxidation could have, should have, and probably did occur prior to even going into the bottle,” Heist says. “So what is there left to easily oxidize?”
So if oxidation isn’t to blame, what else could be causing drinkers to believe their whiskey changes over time, and therefore buy into the notion of neck pours? Heist suggests evaporation.
Due to its volatile nature, alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. When it escapes as gas, alcohol occupies all of the available headspace in a bottle, and the proof of the liquid drops ever so slightly. This has the effect of subtly altering the spirit’s profile because different flavor compounds become more or less soluble at different concentrations of alcohol, Heist explains. “It’s like adding a drop of water,” he says.
Still, it’s hard to say whether evaporation is something we can consider in the neck pour debate. The differences Heist mentions are subtle and occur over lengthy periods — not in the time it takes to finish a small dram and start on a second. Not even over the course of a few weeks, months, or a year. (In 2018, Wade Woodard, author of the Tater-Talk blog, published among the most conclusive findings as to whether bourbon changes in the bottle. The results? It doesn’t.)
So all things considered, oxidation is probably the last thing you need to think about when opening a new bottle or revisiting a treasured half-empty one. But at its core, I don’t think that’s what the neck pour conversation is really about.
For some, using the term is probably a means of sounding more knowledgeable about a topic and hobby they care about. Others likely buy into the theory to give them hope that the bottle they spent so hard searching for was worth the effort, even if it disappointed on the first tasting.
On a grander scale, the neck pour debate feels like a distillation of what it’s like to live online in 2021, told through the lens of tasting America’s native spirit. Are those who argue against the neck pour genuinely driven by the aim of improving their fellow enthusiasts’ knowledge? Or is their frustration fueled by the diminishing importance of scientific fact.
Already, the term has achieved meme-like status among non-believers. “I usually just pour out the first half of the bottle into the sink so I can avoid the neck pour at [sic] all the whisky that touched it,” one Reddit user sarcastically commented in a recent thread on the topic. “But what about the whiskey that touched the whiskey that touched the neck pour?” another replied. “I always pour out two thirds of the bottle to be safe.”
All of which leads us to perhaps the only question left worth exploring: Now that the neck pour is out of the bottle, is there any turning back?
My guess is no. For as long as neck pours remain a part of bourbon drinkers’ lingo, they shall very much remain “a thing.” One to be used as a caveat, one to inspire futile debate and snarky Reddit threads, and one to make pseudo-scientific YouTube explainer videos about.