Sunday, September 14, 2014


The saying goes, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” It is a matter of categorization. Whiskey is a distilled grain spirit that has to be aged in oak however long you choose to age it and in whatever type of barrels you use. Bourbon is special—it must contain at least 51 percent corn in the mash and be distilled to no less than 80 proof (%40 alcohol). Then it must be aged in charred oak barrels for at least 2 years if it is
straight bourbon or 4 years if it is blended to ensure quality. While there are clear whiskeys, (due to being unaged or aged for a very short time) all bourbon whiskey has a dark amber hue due to the charred oak barrels.

Compared to most whiskey, bourbon is softer (due to the water from the region of its distillation—usually Kentucky) and characterized by a mellow vanilla flavor from the vanillin compounds it picks up from the charred oak. Oak is a major feature in bourbon’s flavor profile as well, and the use of corn as a major component means that bourbon is less spicy than rye and subtler than the all-too-noticable malted barley used in its Irish and scotch cousins.

Photograph and Terminology
This is a photo of my Evan Williams Single Barrel. A single barrel means that the whiskey contained in the bottle comes from one barrel selected by the distiller to be sold as an exceptional example of the distillery’s production. It is by definition “straight,” which means it comes from one distillery and is not a blend of several distilleries’ products. Most straight bourbons are a blend of barrels from the same distillery, which makes them more consistent from batch to batch. Sour mash, which also provides consistency, means that part of the fermented (sour) mash is saved from each batch to be  introduced into the next. The sour mash does not imply a sour flavor, it means that the yeast strain used to make alcohol from the mash is maintained rather than starting with a fresh batch with new yeast strains, much like sour dough bread.

Good bourbon is often best experienced neat or on ice. Some like Maker’ Mark have a distinctive sweet taste due to the portion of wheat used in the mash. Evan Williams is known for its balanced flavor with a little rye and wheat in the mash while its primary grain is necessarily corn. Unlike scotch, almost all bourbon shares a similar flavor profile, color, and mouthfeel. This predictability lends itself to mixing, when any bourbon, fine or cheap, will do.

Mix it with pineapple juice for a Kentucky Cocktail, muddle it with orange and simple syrup in an Old Fashioned, mix it with muddled mint for a Mint Julep, shake it with sweet vermouth for your Manhattan. One thing you will notice is that bourbon cocktails keep the flavor of the whiskey at the forefront and don’t try to mask it with too much additional flavor. Mixing with bourbon means working with the spirit, not against it, and using additional liqueurs and syrups that have a similar taste. Bourbon does not like to be hurried or ignored, and a good drink will hold your attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your interest in my Jolly Bartender project. I will do my best to respond as quickly as possible to your request or comment. If you would like to contact me about bartending for your event or setting up a home bar, write to me at