I am a wino, and I mean that in the professional and personal sense. As a working sommelier, I spent years memorizing wine aromas and flavors and factoids; stronger liquor to me was always the prose and not the poetry in a restaurant’s beverage program. And at home, we drink only wine.
Enter bourbon, my new obsession, or re-enter it, to be more precise—as it’s been made continuously since the 18th century. One of the things that distinguishes wine—at least good wine—is its ability to evoke geographical place in a way that a generic liquor made in mass quantities simply cannot.
Cocktails were invented to make otherwise unpalatable spirits drinkable (mixers) or at least to hasten their effects (tonic, seltzer, CO2). Wine, however, is a stand-alone beverage that sings or stumbles on its own merits, much like the distinction between a high-end sipping tequila and a crappy tequila shot obscured by as much citrus and salt as possible.
And if any American spirit speaks of place and is eminently sip-able, it’s corn-based whiskey from Kentucky. While it has taken some time to catch on as a premium product, no spirits category has seen the kind of double-digit growth that Kentucky bourbon has enjoyed over the last decade.
It’s an American classic and one that folks from Shanghai to, yes, even the Scottish Highlands are discovering. American whiskey is now far and away our top-selling alcoholic beverage export. Sorry, Budweiser!
A few educational tidbits on bourbon to impress your next date or business dinner: Sure, it’s whiskey, distilled to a minimum of 80 proof, and by law it must be at least 51% corn-based, with the better quality products at a much higher percentage. While it doesn’t have to be from Kentucky, about 95% of U.S. bourbon production hails from this historic home, where settlers like Elijah Craig are still remembered on labels today.
The close of 2013 was marked by nearly 4.9 million barrels of ageing bourbon slumbering away in Kentucky, a figure that currently exceeds the state’s population. Purists declare that the local iron-free, limestoney water is as significant to Kentucky bourbon as its signature charred, white oak barrels.
The latter give bourbon its distinct coppery color and fiery finish and are often exported to Scotland for finishing barrel-aged whiskies that benefit from a subtler oak treatment. (Note that corn-based whiskeys made in Tennessee, like Jack Daniels, are in fact called “Tennessee whiskeys” and not bourbons.)
Small-batch bourbons—those made in tiny quantities—are meant for sipping in the same way as fine wines; toss in an ice cube or two if you must, but don’t use the really good stuff for mixing. That said, better-quality bourbons make for better-quality cocktails, so pass on that Wild Turkey.
Below are some bourbon recommendations for both novices and experts alike. If you’re looking to warm your winter nights, consider Kentucky’s classic, where fire and complexity unite in a way that is uniquely American.
– W. C. Fields
Classic and Affordable:
Woodford Reserve, SRP $30
Blanton’s, SRP $42
Upgrades and Worth It:
Four Roses Single Barrel, SRP $55
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve (10 Year Old), SRP $110
Best Bourbon Bars in LA:
Now Try This at Home:
The Cat’s Pajamas
by Denis Gobis
2 ounces Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon
.75 ounces cream sherry
.5 ounces Cynar
2 dashes Chinese five-spice bitters
Add all ingredients togeth-er and stir. Pour into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with fanned apple slices on the rim of the glass.
Knob Creek Bourbon Fizz
by Michael Symon
½ part lemon juice
1½ parts Knob Creek bourbon
1 egg white
2 parts Orangina soda
Muddle thyme and simple syrup thoroughly in the bottom of the shaker. Combine with lemon juice, bourbon and egg white. Add ice and shake vigorously for 1 minute. Strain over ice and float with soda. Garnish with a few sprigs of thyme.
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