Ah bourbon, up there with the electric guitar as one of America’s greatest triumphs. A good many of life’s milestones have been accompanied by a dram; remembering a life passed or celebrating the birth of a new, a first date or first dance as a newly married couple. Through ups and downs, a good bourbon always seems to fit the scene.

It’s in that spirit, that we take a moment to talk about this spirit, so that you might enjoy your next glass even more.

Let’s start with some basics.

 

America’s Whiskey (keyword there is America)

I still get this question often, “doesn’t bourbon have to be made in Kentucky to be considered bourbon?”

Nope. There’s some argument as to whether the birthplace of bourbon is Bourbon County, Kentucky or the Bourbon Street area of New Orleans, but it can be produced in any state in the US. There are actually some great bourbons coming out of Virginia, Ohio and even Colorado.

All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Just a reminder, bourbon is whiskey and scotch is whiskey (distilled in Scotland…imagine that) but not all whiskey is scotch and not all whiskey is bourbon. Catch my drift here? Then there’s Canadian whiskey and Tennessee whiskey and Irish whiskey…all whiskey, still not bourbon.

 

So what else does it take to be bourbon?

In addition to being distilled in the United States, basic regulations for bourbon include:

  • Made from a grain mash of at least 51% corn (that second grain, the flavor grain, is where it gets interesting)
  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more

One of the most important parts of the process, barrel aging, has no minimum – unless to be labeled “straight bourbon” which means aged a minimum of 2 years and contains no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits.

Whew…. now on to the good stuff.

 

How to drink your bourbon

Every bourbon I buy for the first time I try it 4 ways, in this order: neat, neat with a splash of water, on the rocks and in a go-to cocktail.

Neat – pour some bourbon in a glass, give it a few seconds to breath then sip and enjoy. No ice, no mixers and no, this is not a shot.

Neat with a splash – A very small splash of water can oxygenate the spirit and change the complexity of the scent and flavor. This isn’t meant to cut the bourbon, simply to add oxygen. The differences may be subtle depending on the bourbon. Some bourbons you may prefer neat and some with a couple drops of water.

On the rocks – the idea with “on the rocks” is to change the temperature and thus the viscosity of the bourbon so there are multiple ways to do this. Some bourbon drinkers will never put a handful of ice in their pour for fear of watering it down and so many use whiskey stones instead, or an ice sphere that doesn’t melt as quickly. No matter the method you prefer, that change in temperature can alternate aroma and mouth-feel so it’s worth a test. Personally, I like to use one large cube from a silicon ice tray as it tends to melt slower.

Some may find whiskey stones carry a subtle mineral or metallic aroma that can get in the way of enjoying your bourbon. For this same reason, when using ice, be sure to clean your trays regularly and use filtered water when possible.

Go-to Cocktail – Instead of telling you a particular cocktail to test your new bourbon with, I’d simply recommend you taste with a cocktail you make on a regular basis. Variations in grain bill, bottle proof, even the rickhouse used during storage and aging (and how the temperature fluctuates) can impact how your bottle of amber libation tastes when combined with bitters, fruits, sodas, other liquors, etc.

My go-tos are bourbon takes on traditional whiskey cocktails including: Bourbon Manhattan, Bourbon Old Fashioned and a Bourbon Mark Twain.

 

Great bourbons no matter the budgetGreat bourbons no matter the budget

You don’t have to track down Pappy Van Winkle to drink great bourbon. The following prices will vary depending on where you live or if you purchase online.


$40 – $60 Range

  • Blantons Original Single Barrel
  • Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
  • Belle Meade – my favorite bourbon to drink right now


$30- $40 range

  • Old Weller Antique
  • Willett Pot Still Reserve
  • Bowman Brothers Virgina Straight Bourbon Whiskey


$20- $30 Range

 

I hope that helps you find and enjoy your next glass or bottle. Cheers.