The Bourbon Flight: What It Is And How To Order It

Ordering bourbon in a bar can be overwhelming, especially with all those glorious golden pours lined up like sentinels of whiskey heaven. It's best to jump right in, testing and tasting all the nuanced brand-name and crafts bourbons you've been pining to try. By far, the best way to do that is splurging on a bourbon flight.

To the uninitiated, bourbon flights have nothing to do with airplanes and everything to do with sampling top-shelf or small-batch bourbons without ordering a full glass. Many bars feature pre-determined bourbon flights on the menu, which can change often to introduce new whiskeys or newly released versions of old-time favorites. The bourbon is presented neat, which means at room temperature and unadulterated — no additions to disguise the flavor in any way. The point is to discover the inherent characteristics of each bourbon, see how they compare to one another, and gauge whether they appeal to your bourbon proclivities. Bourbon flights also broaden your inherent knowledge of what makes a good bourbon.

Bar flight menus sometimes provide small food samples that complement the bourbon notes, including charcuterie boards with various meats, cheeses, dips, and fruit slices. They're intended as enhancers of the bourbon experience, not detractors, so go easy on the edibles. Make sure the flight employs traditional bourbon glasses, which have rims that taper inwards, concentrating the bourbon aromas and directing them upward. The gold standard of bourbon glasses is known as a Glencairn, featuring a bowled base that facilitates swirling for extra aromatics.

Successfully ordering a bourbon flight

If several flights feature on a bar menu, choose ones highlighting bourbon characteristics that appeal to you. Or be adventurous and dive into unknown territory. Look for "note" descriptors such as oak, vanilla bean, tobacco, toffee, caramel, leather, clove, or peaches, and opt for ones that awaken your interest. You can even pre-educate yourself by studying the American Bourbon Association's official "Bourbon Tasting Wheel." If the bartender has time and inclination, you could create your own bourbon flight by requesting any bourbon you fancy. But remember, the person behind the bar potentially knows a lot about each spirit, so tap into that insight and ask for recommendations. They'll also have a good idea of which bourbons pair well with one another within a flight. 

Whether ordering a pre-set bourbon flight or one of your own creations, expect a presentation consisting of three to five bourbon varieties in a standard bourbon glass. Each pour typically comprises one-half ounce of the bar's featured bourbons or the ones you've requested. Pay attention to the age and color of each spirit in the flight, which can reveal depth and quality — for example, lighter colors can indicate less aging, lower alcohol, and a lighter taste. Once your flight arrives, toss out inhibitions and "nose the glass," which, in whiskey parlay, means to stick your nose right into the glass and breathe in deeply. This is crucial because smell is strongly associated with taste and can impact the entire experience.