Lincoln’s father made it for a living. Ulysses Grant gulped it in the oval office. Does George Thorogood, that red-blooded all-American ax-man, drink alone? Naw, he sits with his buddies Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.
Slug one for ol’ Glory: Bourbon is the only distinctly American liquor ever produced. It’s as patriotic as apple pie, as American as letter bombs. It’s the classic patriot’s spirit—golden, smoky, sweet, and hella strong as it sluices from the Appalachian highlands in a swirl of guts, defiance and Stateside ingenuity.
My Old Kentucky Grog gets its pronounced flavor partly from rebel spirit, but mostly from mashed corn and charred oak barrels. Reverend Elijah Craig, a Bible-thumping snake-handler from Bourbon County, Kentucky, is credited with inventing the stuff back in 1789. That’s subject to opinion, but certainly, it’s where the name came from, and to this day, bourbon is always made in Kentucky(a gesture of respect, not litigation). Jack Daniels, which looks, smells, tastes and rises again the following morning exactly like bourbon, calls itself Tennessee Sour Mash. A second red-letter year in bourbon history is 1791, when the government imposed an excise tax on whiskey. Distillers and dipsomaniacs revolted, tarred and feathered the tax man and started what’s known as the Whiskey Rebellion. It was the Kent State of the eighteenth century, the first time that federal troops were dispatched to uphold some stupid law. Many bourbon makers simply disappeared into the extreme wilderness of Kentucky’s backwoods, where there was plenty of grain, torrents of clean limestone mountain water (the quality of any spirit is proportionate to the purity of the water used to make it), and nobody around but Boss Hogg to interrupt the flow of moonshine from makeshift distilleries, known colloquially as ‘stills’.
Two types of stills are used to make bourbon; the pot still and the continuous still. The pot still is the upturned funnel usually associated with a Dukes of Hazzard-style enterprise, legal or not. The continuous (or patent) still is a more elaborate means to the same end. Both involve the process of heating a mashed, fermented liquid something like beer to a point where the alcohol evaporates. This vapor is then cooled and collected as raw liquor. Commercial bourbon is made with a continuous still, then aged in charred, virgin black oak barrels. This oak tends to contain a lot of sugary sap, which accounts for bourbon’s characteristic sweetness. The law insists that such barrels be used only once in the production of bourbon. After that, they’re frequently sold to manufacturers of single-malt scotches, which benefit from a more mellow aging process.
Single malts have their quality parallel in bourbon’s ‘small batch’ category, which are individually aged in oak for a carefully-monitored period, then bottled. It’s the belief of master distillers that each barrel develops its own personality, and comes of age at its own time. The idea of blending perfectly matured bourbon with too-young or too-old whiskey is an anathema to such perfectionists, and they insist on bottling batches only when they’re ready. Such small batch or ‘single barrel’ bourbons are frequently released at barrel strength, which means that no water has been added—the case with nearly all other commercial bourbons.
Booze merchants like to refer to ‘white goods’ and ‘brown goods’ as traditional enemies, as if in the spirit world, clear hooch like vodka and gin is in some mortal combat with whiskey. For years, the market favored light, flavor-challenged mixing spirits as the lighten-up-America faction spread its emasculating ganglions everywhere. Witness the martini revolution… When was the last time anyone ordered a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned?
But mixed drinks, however amusing, are not really the domain of bourbon, nor, for that matter, of any quality ‘brown’. In upscale surroundings, where guests call their brands, the fascination is with the art of the distiller, not the bartender. The upsurge of small batch bourbons has forced a re-evaluation of the artform among younger drinkers—and young women especially—who are discovering that bourbon can be as wonderfully individualistic as cognac and scotch… with the added oomph of being born in the USA.
SMALL BATCH TASTING NOTES:
Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, about $18: A nutty, butterscotch aroma leads into a warm and creamy middle palate with plenty of honey and rye on the finish. A nod to the granddaddy of all bourbons, Elijah ‘Char Me A Barrel’ Craig.
Blanton Single Barrel Small Batch Bourbon, around $47: A spicy aroma of dried citrus and orange peels with a hint of vanilla fudge and caramel. A big, fruity palate with toffee, crème brûlée and cloves. A somewhat muted finish shows notes of nutmeg and dried apricot.
Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon,7 Years Old, 107 Proof, around $45: Medium-tawny amber color; grainy oatmeal aromas with floral and spice notes; creamy caramel flavors, smooth, vanilla accents; long finish with some heat.
Booker’s Unfiltered Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 6-8 Years Old, 125.3 Proof, around $45: Deep, tawny amber color; deeply set vanilla, caramel and charred smoky oak aroma; woody flavors with some notable tannin and honey and leading to a G-thug finish–not for the weak of heart.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 80 Proof: Not the most boisterous bourbon in the bunch, it’s young and fruity with lemon balm, sweet candy and caramelized figs in the nose and palate. Fairly simple, but still refreshing with a quick, tea and brown sugar finish.
Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 9 Years Old, 100 Proof: Light and gingery with a nose of toasted nuts and oak. It’s rich and sweet on the palate with middle flavors of nutmeg, pepper and licorice. Fairly glows at the end, with a lingering taste of oak which grows more pronounced with a splash of water. A perfect after-dinner bourbon.