by Writer, Editor, and Lead Instructor
Master Chef Victor Matthews
The story of Bourbon is the story of crazy southern boys. Out-of-their-mind adventurous madmen, a little like me. I call them my “hill country home boys”, but I guess most of the world knows them as geniuses. Now, to be historically accurate, I suppose they didn’t start off Southern. Pennsylvania was the first place in America to have Whiskey, but it wasn’t long until they moved south, and after a little run in with the law, across the mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky. It was here that they made a name for themselves, names we all recognize. Jacob Boehm was one such Pennsylvania farmer, but you might know his great grandson, Jim Beam. They settled into the fertile lands of corn and perfect water. Sometime around 1840 someone figured out that charred barrels made the whiskey smooth. Maybe it was a shipping accident, or maybe it was slightly earlier with a Baptist preacher named Elijah Craig who used barrels that had been fire sterilized a little long and found that the charcoal mellowed the spirit. In any case, it went from clear to golden brownish-red. Crazy southern boys, lost somewhere between moonshine and Einstein. And we were going to need them.
Prohibition killed Bourbon. Not only did it literally shut the process down, but the palate of drinkers was turned to the Canadian and European imports. World War Two only made it worse. Soldiers came back in love with scotch. Jack Daniels and Jim Beam hung in there, and Bill Samuels over at Makers Mark did pretty well, but if you ask me, two people saved Bourbon: Booker Noe and Frank Sinatra. Frank was seen with Jack Daniels, and his iconic stature wore off. But Booker, another crazy southern boy (along with Elmer T. Lee over at Buffalo Trace), brought us the single batch, single barrel, cask strength concept that woke up discerning drinkers. Suddenly Bourbon was as cool as single-malt scotch, and it has only been up from there. Today there is a whole new crop of crazy southern boys, from Julian Van Winkle to Fred Noe to Parker Beam, creating a masterful crop of bourbons that has seen the end to the old dollar mason jar days and ushered in the era of the $100 bottle. So, as a crazy southern boy, I salute my brothers with a neat double and exclaim ‘ya’ll go on now”!
Elijah Craig (1738/1743 – May 18, 1808)
Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel (September 5, 1846 – October 10, 1911)
James Beauregard Beam (1864–1947)
Frederick Booker Noe II (1929–2004)
Elmer T. Lee (1919- )
It is, of course, impossible to say with any certainty what is “the best” when it comes to food, wine and liquor. There is simply too much personal preference involved. Just as you could not say exactly what was the “best” sushi roll or the “best” red wine, only discover what you or your guest like the most; so it is with the complex and vast selection of bourbon. In the end, you must “drink what you like”, and this may or may not agree with “the experts”. Therefore, while we will report ratings and awards and tasting results herein, please keep in mind that everyone’s tastes are different, and you should consider these not so much a ranking as a challenge to delve deeply and discover the wonderful variety of the world of Bourbon. And wonderful it is. Even the lowest ranked Bourbon in our collection of over 70 has character, and the best are pure liquid gold. I have caught myself many times staring into that crystal glass, the shining amber within smelling of smoke and honey, and smiling. The babbling stream called Bourbon, the history of the Whiskey Rebellion, the gifts and artistry of the distillation masters, all part of the legend of our greatest American liquor. This allure, much like the sparkling “water of life”, is long-lived and deep. This is no simple mixing liquor. Bourbon is specific, and American, and southern, and artistic. It is only my opinion, but I find scotch too earthy and peaty, the odd acids and saltwater flavors of the malted barley throw me off. The clear liquors are great for creating martinis, but they have no depth. Many other whisk(e)ys are too light or too heavy, and even though great mescal is a lot of fun, it is rare and often too overwhelming. No, for me, it has to be Bourbon. Uniquely American, quintessentially artisan, and a nearly pure representation of “southern hospitality”, this beautiful liquor is the core of some of our finest cocktails, and we couldn’t have a Kentucky Derby or Cotillion without it. Parasols, gazebos, white columns, spanish moss, and the lilting ascent of a charming hostess, all in a bottle. Perhaps I sound enamored, or entranced, well, I am. I admit it. I have fallen victim to the mysterious smoked caramel spell of Bourbon, and as a Southern Boy born and bred, it runs through my veins.
To say I “love” bourbon might be a bit of an understatement. To me, it represents something beyond an alcoholic beverage. It is cultural, and a glass of great bourbon is much like a beautiful picture of the antebellum south. It is more important than other liquors, and as such, we will treat it with the proper respect. In the following pages you will discover a ”Bourbon Book”. With description sheets and pictures from each Bourbon’s home site, as well as a collection of tasting notes and ratings, we hope to bring Bourbon alive for you and enable you not only to enjoy it more yourself, but to teach it to others. This is a love story, and an educational guide. It is a significant part of our culture, so please take your time, and above all, enjoy! Bourbon is made to have fun after all.
What is Bourbon?
This question is easily answered and available many places, so we will not take too much time here. But you may need to know more specifics or answer questions from guests, so I will cover it briefly and succinctly. For starters, Bourbon is Whiskey. The original whiskey was Irish, and came from the Gaelic “ouisce” or in full, “ouisce beatha”, meaning “water of life”. Another Gaelic culture, Scotland, perhaps took the concept even further (and certainly broader) and it was when these cultures immigrated to America that American Whiskey was born. Of course, just as not all brandy is specific enough to be Cognac, so it is with American Whiskey, which is all good, but not all Bourbon. We’ll get to that later.
A quick word on spelling. Since we are talking about a rough Anglicization of a Gaelic word, the spelling is mildly flexible. In general, the Scottish and Welsh, and those who have learned from them (such as the Canadians and Japanese), use the word “whisky” with no “e”. While the Irish and Americans primarily use the word “whiskey” with an “e”. This really makes no difference, and the words are interchangeable, but if you see the spelling it may help identify the origin. Of course, nothing can be that simple, and American producers Dickel, Maker’s, and Old Forester prefer the Scottish no “e” spelling.
Now, whiskey (I’m Irish and American) is a distilled grain spirit, and can be made from any grain. Most popular are barley, including the incredible malted barleys used for the great scotches, wheat, rye, etc. And this is where Bourbon comes in. Bourbon is made from CORN (at least 51% and usually 70% or more). Now, historically, there is a good reason for this. It was called the Whiskey Rebellion. As you already know, America was a country of immigrants, and many of them made whiskey. Well, not long after the Revolutionary War, the Federal Government began operation, and it started in debt, so taxes needed to be raised (very ironic considering the cause of the Revolution in the first place). In any case, many of these whiskey producing rebels fled across the Appalachian Mountains (specifically the Allegeny Range) to the tax free areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. Here they discovered wonderful sources of perfect water, the most perfect of which was a little creek in Bourbon County Kentucky; and fields of wild maize soon to be cultivated into the corn they needed.
Now, before you plan your trip, ironically, there is no bourbon being produced in the current Bourbon County; but please remember that the original Bourbon County was much larger, a territory really, and has now been divided into 34 current counties in Kentucky. The water in this region is perfect for Bourbon, and with the exception of a gentleman named Jack Daniels who refused to surrender his love of Tennessee, the vast majority of Bourbon is made here. Jack Daniels products (which could technically be considered Bourbon), are highly comparable and often win taste tests, so we will include the legendary Tennessee whiskey here as well. How can you tell easily what is Bourbon? Well, that is simple: it will say “bourbon” on the label.
So, who made the first bourbon? Well, there is really no definitive answer. There were few records being kept back then. But I prefer the legend of Elijah Craig, the Bourbon County Baptist Preacher who used the first charred oak barrels to finish his corn sour mash whiskey. Is it true? Maybe, maybe not, but his namesake bourbon won our taste test and many others, so we’ll go with it! No one really knows how the use of charred barrels began, there are stories of accidental fires and legends of cleaning old barrels by fire that got out of hand, but no one really knows who started the process. We do know that it works. Simply put, it is like the charcoal filter in your tropical fish aquarium. Charcoal filters out off flavors and chemicals, purifying flavors and smoothing the whiskey. In Tennessee many use the Lincoln County System of actually running the whiskey through charcoal (many point to this difference to explain why Tennessee Whisky is not Bourbon, but in general, the effect is the same).
So, to summarize, what makes a whiskey “Bourbon”?
1. Corn. At least 51% and usually more.
2. Age. Usually in new, charred white oak barrels. No specific amount of time required, but two or more years makes the bourbon “straight”, and most great bourbon is aged much longer.
3. Distilled to no more than 160 proof, put into barrels at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.
4. Location. Almost all Bourbon is from Kentucky (97% is made near Bardstown in present day Nelson County), but some (like our fabulous Colorado products) are from other parts of America. In general, it needs to be American, and we can all argue about Tennessee.
How to Serve Bourbon
As mentioned earlier, this is largely a subject of your personal preference, but I will tell you something very unusual that we discovered during tasting. Ice is NOT recommended.
In general, bourbon is served three ways: neat, rocks, and water. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these?
1. Neat is just the straight bourbon in a glass room temperature. This was preferred by nearly all our tasters as well as myself, and here is why. The ice for some reason increased acids and threw off flavors, while the water did just that, watered it down. We prefer a nice heavy crystal glass with plenty of room to smell the intoxicating odors of caramel and wood and smoke emanating from the bourbon.
2. Rocks means poured over ice. Well, this is the most popular for the public, but much like the old snifter design being outdated or a salted rim interfering with great mescal, so is this technique. It does cool the product lowering the effect of the heat or burn, and as it melts that of course adds water which has the positive qualities mentioned below, however, we noticed that hitting the ice almost “bruised” the whiskey, bringing out some off flavors and hiding others, in essence, making it harder to truly taste and appreciate. Does that mean never serve ice? Of course not, do as you like, but this is what our masters have noticed.
3. Water means adding a bit of cool water to the bourbon. Adding a splash of water (or more) to a whiskey seems to release some flavors, but it does have the obvious effect of watering down the product which many do not prefer. It is highly useful however as you get over 90 or100 proof. We call this the “Booker’s” effect, named after Booker’s bourbon which is easily one of the greatest in the world, but comes screaming in at 126 proof, so hot it will burn your entire sensory apparatus and make getting at the unique and complex flavors difficult.
So what do we recommend? Neat. Straight, clear and pure. Nothing added. Pick your favorite. Add a little water if you like, but at least taste it first without ice. Enjoy!