America’s best Whiskey
Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as too much good whiskey.” Chances are he was referring specifically to bourbon, a spirit he was known to adore. But what exactly is bourbon whiskey anyway, and what makes it so good?
Federal standards, issued by Congress in 1964, stipulate that bourbon must be a grain mixture made of at least 51 percent corn, produced in the United States, and distilled to no more than 160 proof, with nothing other than water added to the mixture (aside from yeast). It must also be aged in new, charred-oak barrels, among other requirements. The term “straight” bourbon designates whiskey that has been aged at least two years.
Distillers have had tremendous success experimenting with the mashbill (that’s fancy distiller talk for “recipe”). Aficionados like to group bourbons into fancy-sounding categories. Below, a guide to the jargon and producers:
Most bourbon mashbills contain corn, barley, and rye. The more traditional ones have 8 to 10 percent rye. A few bourbons stand out with a high rye content that makes for a bold, spicy flavor. Four Roses Single Barrel has the highest rye count of any bourbon on the market, at 35 percent. Other high-ryes include Bulleit, Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, and Old Grand Dad.
Flavors can vary: Bulleit is the fruitiest of them all. Basil (who was a pioneering distiller in the late 18th century) is the lightest of the Jim Beam Small Batch and has a nice spicy rye bite, but it lacks the full body of Bulleit. Old Grand Dad comes in three versions: 80 proof, 100, and 114 (that’s Basil’s image on the Old Grand Dad bottle). Both are made by Beam, so they are similar in flavor, but OGD’s three variations, of course, get bolder the higher you go.
Bourbon can be much more than the 51 percent corn minimum; many are made from 60 to 70 percent corn. But very few exist with a really high corn content. Buffalo Trace produces Old Charter with a corn content of more than 80 percent. The other main one is from New York’s new microdistiller Tuthilltown Spirits, which made a splash in the market with its “Baby Bourbon”—made from 100 percent New York corn (yes, it’s legal to produce the stuff outside of Kentucky) and aged in new charred wood. Whiskeys with a high percentage of corn may come across with extra sweetness. Also note that there is a separate and distinct category of corn whiskey; these spirits must be at least 80 percent corn and can only be aged in used charred barrels or new uncharred wood.
While most bourbons are made with corn, rye, and barley, a handful of outlaws defy that tradition with a mashbill of corn, wheat, and barley. Whiskey geeks call these “wheaters” or “wheated bourbons.” This style offers a flavor profile with more pronounced caramel and vanilla and can be described as a tad softer. Maker’s Mark is perhaps the most famous. Others include the many renderings of the Weller label, Rebel Yell, and any of the Van Winkle bourbons. Rebel Yell is the lightest and youngest of the bunch.
No legal definition exists to define “small-batch.” Jim Beam’s launch of Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden brought the term to the public mind. In general, “small-batch” means that a distillery used fewer barrels to make a bottling than it would have with its flagship brand, like Jim Beam white label. Still, this could mean that a distillery culled the choice stuff from 4 barrels or 4,000.
Maker’s Mark draws on about 19 barrels for each batch. Some bottlings such as Noah’s Mill or Kentucky Vintage label their bottlings with batch numbers and the dates that the bottling occurred. In this case, the batch number is an in-house number assigned to each dumped batch of whiskey to designate it from another set of barrels that may be dumped, mingled, and bottled at another time.
Unlike “small-batch,” the phrase “single-barrel” has real meaning. A single-barrel bottling is made from one barrel and bottled without mingling the bourbon with any other barrels. Single-barrel bottlings can be different from barrel to barrel, as each barrel offers different flavors depending on where it was stored in the warehouse and a variety of other characteristics, such as age and natural differences in the wood. Introduced to the world in 1984, Blanton’s was the first single-barrel bourbon on the market. Many others exist now, such as Elijah Craig 18-year-old, Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit, and Eagle Rare. Elijah is the oakiest, smokiest of the three. Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit has more chocolate and spice richness. Eagle is a good middle ground between the two, balancing 10 years in oak with a caramel smoothness. There is no relation to the phrase “single-malt” aside from the fact that both connote quality.
Classic Bourbon Cocktails
Mike’s Milk Punch
Horse’s Neck I
Bottled in Bond
In days gone by, a bottler might label a whiskey as 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume, or ABV), and gosh darn it, the whiskey might actually be less. The whiskey’s coloring might even have been tainted with iodine to give the false impression of aging. Our dear federal regulators stepped in to protect us from fraud with the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. A labeling term called “bottled in bond” (BIB) was created to guarantee that the whiskey was at least four years old, made at one distillery during one distillation season by one distiller, and a bona fide 100 proof.
One might say this is the closest bourbon term to the Scotch designation of “single malt” because single-malt whiskeys come from one distillery and do not mingle with grain spirits or any other producer’s whiskey. Whiskey designated as “bottled in bond” was stored in warehouses considered “bonded” by the government. These storage units were under lock and key by federal agents to guarantee no one had tampered with the whiskey. Ages ago, whiskey lovers saw BIB designation as a sign of quality on a label. This term is a bit outdated and rarely used today as whiskey production standards have greatly increased across the board.
A few bottled in bond labels that still exist include the big bully, spice-filled Old Grand Dad 100 proof and the slightly minty and toasty Heaven Hill 100 proof.
As the “flavor monsters” in the whiskey world, cask-strength whiskeys excite as rare treats. Bourbon distillate is typically diluted with water before hitting the charred-oak barrel, since federal regulations say that the bourbon cannot go into the barrel at more than 125 proof. Water evaporates out of the barrel as the whiskey slumbers in a hot warehouse, so you often see the proof is higher when the barrel is emptied than when it was filled. Therefore, most bourbon is cut with water again before bottling to bring the proof down to a desired strength, such as 40 percent ABV or perhaps a bold 50 percent. Cask-strength bottlings have not been cut with any water and feature full-flavored, high-octane whiskey straight from the barrel. This style offers great flexibility, because you can add whatever amount of water you like to bring the whiskey to your preferred strength. (You can always bring a whiskey at barrel-proof down to 40 percent or 50 percent alcohol, but you can never make a 40 percent ABV whiskey taste stronger.)
Jim Beam released Booker’s as the first cask-strength bourbon in 1988. The whiskey’s power amazed bourbon lovers with nuances of tobacco, oak tannin, chewy caramel, and fall spice. Others that titillate discerning taste buds are George T. Stagg, Parker’s Heritage, and Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed. Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, firmly believes in distilling at a lower proof to capture more flavor so its cask-strength whiskey is the lowest strength in this category at around 108 proof. It’s loaded with cinnamon and nutmeg spice. Parker’s Heritage is rich with dried fruit and toffee notes and has a very dry, woody finish. Stagg’s proof differs with each release (it has been as high as 141) and so does the flavor profile, but it typically displays an incredibly concentrated, layered complexity each time, and at 15 years, a bit of smoky wood dominates the finish.
Be warned: Drinking undiluted whiskey over 100 proof can be dangerous in more ways than one. Booker Noe, for whom Booker’s is named, loved telling the story of how his wife blew the oven doors off when cooking with undiluted Booker’s. What’s more, a little addition of water unlocks the subtleties of that concentrated flavor; you need not prove your vigor by drinking cask-strength whiskey straight.
Cheap and Cheerful
With modern whiskey production standards, you can bet that all the bourbon at the bar or store is “good,” even if you find it on the bottom shelf. Many inexpensive bourbons, which are younger and lighter than their older siblings, deserve respect. Very Old Barton can be found in a variety of proofs around the country, and all are high-quality bourbons aged for approximately six years. Various other labels are ideal for party punch; J.W. Dant and Bellows come to mind. Dant, available in two proofs, comes across as having slightly more maturity and a gingerbread spiciness. Bellows is lighter and very easy on the palate.
A few bourbons stand out as limited, hard-to-find items that make excellent gifts and function as special-occasion spirits. Each year in the fall, Buffalo Trace releases the Antique Collection that includes a few bourbons like George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, and Eagle Rare 17. The Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old amazes many with its balance of flavors (think caramel, vanilla, cocoa, with candied dried fruits, all balancing well with the extended wood aging) despite its older age—and every now and then the company will release a limited edition of the 23-year old. Hirsch 16 has a fascinating sweet, grainy aroma that leads into coconut and toffee flavors with a lingering finish of spice and toasted bread. The distillery in Pennsylvania is now defunct—some bottles remain on store shelves, but once they’re gone, they’re gone.