I do apologize for an off-the-topic blog, but we recently purchased a beautiful bottle of bourbon (Four Roses Small Batch) and it spurred me on to write a blog about what a wonderful beverage bourbon is.
I started drinking whiskey many years ago. I drank Crown Royal and VO – both Canadian whiskeys, both rye whiskeys. There are several nice U.S. rye whiskeys, Bulleit, Heaven Hill and Sazerac Company all make a nice rye. And, we found the farther north the rye is grown, the milder the whiskey, but this blog is not about rye whiskey, it’s about bourbon.
We recently took a trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We thought we could see enough in two weeks, and found it would take at least four weeks to see everything we wanted to see. Kentucky has two bourbon trails, one is the classic Bourbon Trail, the other is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, this one focuses on the smaller distilleries, those that may be new, or they may be just more handcrafted in their approach. It would be difficult to pick a favorite.
The classic Bourbon Trail features the big boys, those distilleries we all know, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Woodford’s Reserve. The Craft Tour features smaller distilleries you may not have heard of: Limestone Branch, MB Roland, Barrel House. Regardless of the tour, each distillery offers something special and unique. Each distillery has their own method and their own recipe for making their bourbon. This is one of my favorite aspects of drinking bourbon. Like wine, each distillery makes a unique product. Unlike wine, the product does not vary greatly from year to year unless the distillery gets a new master distiller (uncommon) or if the distillery stores their barrels in a warehouse that is not temperature controlled and we have very erratic weather, again, uncommon.
I found on Wikipedia the six primary federal laws (27 C.F.R. 5) which pertain to bourbon made for consumption in the United States. They are:
- Produced in the United States
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
- 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)
There are other laws regarding bourbon made for consumption in the United States, but these refer to the aging and get very detailed. If you’re interested in these laws, they can be found on Wikipedia here.
Most bourbons are made from corn, rye and barley. A few are made with the addition of wheat. If you are new to drinking bourbon, you should be forewarned there is a slight pepper burn to most whiskeys. Bourbon made with wheat has less of a pepper burn to them, the wheat gives the bourbon a sweeter, less pepper taste. Maker’s Mark (the one with the iconic red wax on the bottle) is the most well-known bourbon made with wheat. Other bourbons made with wheat are; Barton’s 1792, Heaven Hills’ Larceny, and, if you are lucky enough to procure some, W.L. Weller Special Reserve by Buffalo Trace. My personal opinion on wheated bourbons is: yum! The wheat smooths out the bourbon, allowing the buttery, sugary caramel corn flavor to come forward. Ha! Now you know the secret as to why so many people love bourbon, yes, it is that buttery, sugary, caramel corn flavor. What’s not to love about that.
Okay, so you’re new to bourbon, you want to try it but you’re not enthralled with the idea of burning your throat. I suggest you start with a bourbon cocktail, something along the line of an Old-Fashioned or a Manhattan. An Old-Fashioned is made with sugar muddled with bitters, pieces of orange and a cherry. A splash of soda is added to the mixture, topped with bourbon and your bartender should garnish the drink with fresh orange and a cherry. I think this is a very sweet drink, it is not my favorite, but if you’re new at drinking bourbon, and you like a sweet drink, then order an Old-Fashioned. Manhattans on the other hand, are one of my favorite drinks. They can be made “prefect” or not. A Manhattan is a mixture of bourbon, vermouth, and bitters. A perfect Manhattan has both sweet and dry vermouth, a regular Manhattan is made with only sweet vermouth. You can enjoy a Manhattan straight (served in a martini glass) or over ice (served in a low ball glass). I like my Manhattan made perfect, served over ice in a low ball glass, and with a twist of lemon instead of the usual cherry. You may prefer yours straight up in a martini glass with a cherry. No problem, there is no wrong way to drink bourbon.
Now, to move on to drinking bourbon without additional ingredients. To really appreciate the subtle nuances of bourbon, try it either neat (no ice) or with one large ice cube. You don’t want too many cubes because that will eventually dilute the bourbon. You can purchase an ice tray that makes large cubes. One will do. Pour the bourbon either neat into the glass or over the ice. Take a deep whiff of the bourbon, just as you might do with a red or white wine. Swirl the bourbon in the glass, just like a red wine. With bourbon, you will notice the liquid will stay on the side of the glass for a moment or two. Now, slowly sip the bourbon. Take note of the initial taste, the middle taste, and the lingering taste as it leaves your mouth. This is where you will start to notice the different nuances of the distilleries. If you are drinking your bourbon neat and you want to “open up the bourbon” (meaning you want to really bring forth the caramel corn
flavors), try a slight splash of good water (water without chemicals or sulfates in it). The water will make the bourbon more flavorful. Some people do not want to clutter their bourbon with a lot of flavors, others do. Again, there’s no wrong way to drink bourbon.
If you’re looking for a robust bourbon, head immediately to Knob Creek. I have found Knob Creek to be the bourbon with the most pepper in it. If you’re not enjoying the pepper in the bourbon, but like the flavor, add a little Dark Chocolate Godiva Liquor. The Dark Chocolate Godiva Liquor removes all traces of the pepper, leaving only the lovely taste of the bourbon, and you don’t really taste the chocolate (unless you add too much – meaning one-half Godiva one-half bourbon).
When we finally arrived home after our trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we had seven bottles of bourbon with us. This was not an easy feat. You cannot legally ship alcohol from Kentucky to where I live. This means we had to purchase an extra suitcase and then, because a bottle bourbon weighs at least 5 pounds, we had to mail our heavier items home. Regardless, we made it home with 7 bottles of bourbon. We had:
- W.L. Weller from Buffalo Trace
- Town Branch from Altech Lexington Brewing and Distilling
- Rowan’s Creek from Willett Distillery
- Four Roses Small Batch from Four Roses Distillery
- Very Old Barton from 1792 Barton Distillery
- Jim Beam Single Barrel from Jim Beam Distillery
- Woodford’s Double Oak from Woodford Reserve
We also added two Vermont bourbons, Smuggler’s Notch Bourbon and Mad River Bourbon. We did a taste testing and when we took the dollar out of the equation, despite all you have heard about Kentucky bourbon (and yes, it is good), the winner was the Vermont Smuggler’s Notch. However, it is expensive ($49), so…putting the dollar back into the equation, the W.L. Weller won. The only problem with the Weller is, you can’t get it! At least we can’t.
So, back to the results. After tasting all of the above, removing the Smuggler’s because it is too expensive, and the Weller, because it is unavailable, we like the Town Branch Bourbon, made in Lexington, Kentucky. This is not an easy bourbon for us to get, we have to drive several hours to Boston, but we can get it, and it is a reasonable price ($34).
You may be wondering what the point was to this tasting. The point was to find a bourbon we felt was the best for us, something we could easily afford, and easily obtain, that is our favorite tasting bourbon because every bourbon is different. That may be why so many people enjoy drinking it. More than likely if you like drinking spirits, you will find a bourbon you enjoy.
There is a lot of history in the making of bourbon. There are the stories as to how some distilleries did not close down during prohibition because they made “medicine”. Yes, you could get a prescription for bourbon during the years of prohibition. There are recipe wars, whiskey clubs (Women who Whiskey), and there is the story of Pappy Van Winkle. In my opinion, this adds color and fun to the bourbon experience.
I trust this blog has given those of you who are inexperienced with bourbon some information as to why so many folks enjoy drinking bourbon, perhaps you will give it a try. I hope you do.