Winter is my favorite time to drink bourbon. The blended taste of caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch, smoothly mixed with nuances of tobacco, leather and smoke, warming me as it goes down, banishes the winter cold from the room.
Like wine, bourbon has a complexity to it which depends on the maker, distillery and the barrel. Unlike wine made in the United States, all U.S. bourbon has at least six laws, and some can be confusing. The laws change with regard to bourbon which is sold in the United States, and bourbon made for exporting. However, for simplicity of this blog, we will stick to the U.S. Federal Laws, which are:
- Produced in the United States
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak containers
- Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
- Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
- Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
- Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period. Products aged for as little as three months are sold as bourbon. The exception is straight bourbon, which has a minimum aging requirement of two years. In addition, any bourbon aged less than four years must include an age statement on its label.
- Bourbon that meets the above requirements, has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may (but is not required to) be called straight bourbon.
- Bourbon that is labeled as straight that has been aged under four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
- Bourbon that has an age stated on its label must be labeled with the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle (not counting the age of any added neutral grain spirits in a bourbon that is labeled as blended, as neutral-grain spirits are not considered whiskey under the regulations and are not required to be aged at all).
Bourbon that is labeled blended (or as a blend) may contain added coloring, flavoring, and other spirits (such as un-aged neutral grain spirits); but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon.
Laws aside, to make a fine bourbon, you need to begin with an excellent Master Distiller. The Master Distiller, or the Maker (hence the name Maker’s Mark), determines the recipe of the mash; how much corn, barley, rye and perhaps wheat will be in the batch. The percentage of each of these grains greatly determines the final product. If a bourbon has wheat in the recipe, the taste will be smoother, less pepper. The rye is what gives the bourbon the pepper. The farther north the location of the rye, the less pepper the whiskey will have in it (think Crown Royal from Canada – low on the pepper or burn as some people say).
The Maker may also determine the length and location of the aging process. This aging process is detrimental to the taste and smoothness of the product. Longer aging, smoother bourbon, but it is a costly process because every year a little of each barrel evaporates. This evaporation is called the Angels Share. This is one reason why bourbon that is aged longer is more expensive.
Now come the barrels. By U.S. bourbon law, it is required the barrels are made of new charred oak. A lot of the taste of the bourbon will come from the barrels, depending on how, where, and how long they are stored. If a barrel is stored in a barn which is not temperature controlled, the weather can change the batch. A long hot summer will bring a lot of caramel and vanilla into the batch, while a cooler summer will create a bourbon that has a shorter finish and more pepper in it.
And now comes the fun. Every bourbon tells a story. The age, size, and location of the distillery leaves its own story in each bottle. Just like wine, some bourbons can change with the production year. Bourbons that are “single barrel” and “small batch” are dependent on the barrel and the storing of the barrels, making each batch a bit different from the other.
Many people feel Kentucky is the only place where bourbon should be made. I disagree. There are many, many fine bourbons made in Washington (Tatoosh), Utah (High West Spirits), New York (Hillrock), and Vermont (Smugglers’ Notch Distillery). I am sure there are other States making excellent bourbon, but I have not had the opportunity to try them. Don’t get me wrong, Kentucky makes a lot of good bourbon, but it is not the only State making good bourbon.
Kentucky is historically famous for their bourbon, they do have the oldest distillery – Maker’s Mark (Burks Distillery) – and Kentucky is also home to Buffalo Trace (George T. Stagg). Buffalo Trace was allowed to stay open during prohibition to make bourbon for “medicinal purposes”. But just because a distillery is old, doesn’t mean they make the best bourbon. The best bourbon is the bourbon you enjoy the most.
After doing a lot of taste testing (that is what we call it), we have found our mood, the weather, the ambiance, and the occasion determine which bourbon we want to drink. Sitting by the firepit on a chilly evening calls for more pepper in the bourbon. Some bourbons which have more pepper to the finish are; Knob Creek, Very Old Barton, Bullet, and Weller 107. Celebrations, good friends and cocktails before dinner will find us sipping a sweeter bourbon such as; Maker’s Mark, Four Roses Small Batch, and Tatoosh. A quiet evening, just the two of us, and we will be sipping a bourbon with a longer finish, which would be; Smuggler’s Notch, Woodford Double Oak, and Town Branch. Of course, this is just my opinion, and that’s what is wonderful about bourbon, everyone has an opinion as to what they like and want.
If you’re new to drinking any type of whiskey, you may not like it because of the typical “burn”. Many bourbons have a lot less burn than most other types of whiskies (Scotch, Tennessee, Irish, and Rye. If you want to try bourbon without any pepper or burn to it, try a cocktail made with dark chocolate liqueur. Just a small amount of dark chocolate liqueur (it must be dark chocolate – other chocolate won’t blend), will take out the burn, and if you don’t add too much, you won’t taste the chocolate.
If you want to stay true to the nature of bourbon, simply add a large ice cube (large cubes melt slower and dilute the bourbon less), or a splash of good clear water, to two ounces of bourbon. The water will open up the flavors of the bourbon, which is why some people will order a bourbon with a “water back”, meaning a glass of clear water served with a glass of straight bourbon.
Cocktails which are available in most bars or taverns include: Manhattan, Perfect or Not (a Perfect Manhattan has both sweet and dry vermouth, a regular Manhattan only has sweet
vermouth in it), Old Fashion, Whiskey Sour, and perhaps a Mint Julep (although many bars do not have fresh mint). Other cocktails that may be a little more difficult to procure are: Whiskey Smash, Brown Derby, and the Boulevardier.
As you can see the options are unlimited. Try different ingredients, be adventurous – or not, I’m sure you will find a bourbon you will enjoy. Even if you find you do not want to drink the bourbon – cook with it! It’s marvelous in barbeque sauce, basting the ham, mixed with sweet potatoes – hmmm…I think I see a trend here, looks like Southern food to me.
So – what is your favorite bourbon?
No matter what you choose to add to your bourbon, or perhaps you add nothing at all, drink responsibly!