Before flavored martinis and muddled herbal this and that came Bourbon, the most American of spirits. But not the gut rot stuff grandpa slapped back after a hard day’s work. No, today we’re sipping small-batch, handcrafted elixirs with real guts and nuance, savored neat without ice.
Bourbon whiskey is high in our minds as it works for summer entertaining. Think about all those Old Fashioned cocktails and mint juleps you sucked down during Triple Crown season. Keep the party going during seasonal BBQs and dinner parties. High-end vodkas and tequilas are still haute, but savory boutique bourbons have clearly been on the rise for some time, especially since single-malt scotch has fallen from favor.
How is it defined?
Bourbon’s background isn’t terribly complicated. Most are made in a county in Kentucky, though the spirit can be made in a number of states as long as the producers adhere to some rules.
By federal law, Bourbon must include at least 51 percent corn, aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred white-oak barrels, and not be made above 160 proof or 80 percent alcohol. At this level, you could fuel a car. Most of the premium bottles are higher than the standard 80 proof, but usually not more than 100 proof.
Filler grains include barley, wheat and rye. Most producers usually don’t combine wheat and rye, however, as taste is adversely affected. Corn content usually ranges between 60 percent and 75 percent. More than 80 percent, and you have corn whiskey, not bourbon.
The flavors you’ll find in high-end bourbon run the gamut, from vanilla, fruit and spice to leather, smoke and nuts.
You can enjoy it on ice, but the preferred method is on its own and perhaps with a splash of water. Please keep juices, sodas and colas away from premium Bourbon. Would you put a $50 bottle of wine on the rocks or into sangria?
A few good bottles
A couple solid options include Black Maple Hill Single Barrel ($100), with its nice floral notes and sweetness, or personal favorite Booker’s True Barrel ($150), one of the few bourbons bottled straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered. It’s potent, too, at 126 proof. Booker’s is an outstanding example of super-premium “old-school” American whiskey, developed by Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson. Other widely available names to look for are Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Jefferson’s Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark and Baker’s.
And if you’re wondering about Jack Daniel’s, it’s not Bourbon. While a terrific, flavorful whiskey, its recipe doesn’t fit within guidelines. Plus, it’s produced in neighboring Tennessee, and, well, the two states are whiskey rivals and they prefer to call their products “Tennessee sour mash.”
But you don’t have to wait for next year’s Kentucky Derby to pull out a bottle of spirited bourbon. It’s ideal all summer long. You can still don your best chapeau while hanging out with old granddad.
What is bourbon?
• A county in Kentucky
• It became America’s official spirit by an act of Congress in 1964
• Made of at least 51 percent corn
• Barley, wheat and rye are fillers
• Aged for minimum of two years in new, charred white-oak barrels, usually from Missouri, Indiana or Kentucky
• Cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol)
• Cut only with water to reduce alcohol levels
• Rum was America’s first spirit, due to plentiful molasses from sugar production, but lost favor to whiskey as more Europeans settled in America
Photo by Cottonbro Studio