By Scott Packard
Let’s talk about whiskey. That’s whiskey with an “e,” because we’re gonna work up to whisky, commonly referred to as “Scotch,” pal. You’re not quite ready for that–Islay versus Speyside, blended versus single malt, peaty smoke versus smooth toasted cereal. We’ll get to that soon enough. No, best to start with something a bit more familiar, more approachable, something closer to home: Bourbon.
You’ve had bourbon. Starting with sips of your dad’s Jim Beam and Coke, then barely remembered shots of Wild Turkey 101 with friends in the basement, maybe onto forays into something higher up the shelf. If not, we want to offer some suggestions about how to jump into this most American of liquors.
But first, what makes whiskey bourbon? Bourbon is often conflated with Kentucky, and while the state has deep roots in the finest traditions of bourbon-making, the spirit is defined by how, rather than where, it’s made. In 1964, Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit,” which tells us two things: Congress was getting important shit done in ’64, and, in order to be called bourbon, it has to be made in the USA (not necessarily in Kentucky, but by far, most is made there).
To be called Bourbon, the mash (a mix of water and a dried grain) must be made with at least 51 percent corn. The remaining 49 percent is commonly corn, rye, wheat (W.L. Weller and the renowned Pappy Van Winkle are famed “wheated” bourbons), or a mixture of these grains.
The fermented mash is twice distilled in column stills, vice the pot stills used in Scotch or Irish whisky, before spending at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. Two years are a minimum, but several fine examples exist of bourbon aged for much longer. There is a limit, however, because more time with the wood means more lost to evaporation–the “angel’s share,” as they say in Scotland–and more flavor influence from the oak on the final product; i.e., too much of a good thing on top of the added expense of lost product and storage. Bourbon’s kissing cousin, Tennessee whiskey (Jack Daniels, George Dickel) is essentially bourbon that’s been charcoal-filtered after distillation.
A brief segue into barrel aging: a while back, we had the fortune to receive tutelage from Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller, Chris Morris, on coopering and the influence barrels have on the taste profile of a spirit. During a visit to Sonoma-Cutrer Winery in Sonoma County, Chris used the coopering facilities there to illustrate the differences between oak barrels prepared for wine aging versus the steps taken for bourbon aging. Wine is aged in “toasted” oak (usually French or American oak–which influence the wine differently) barrels. Toasting the wood, either over an open fire or with a mechanical torch after the barrel has been formed, lightly darkens the appearance but significantly mellows the harsh tannins present and raw, “woodsy” flavors imparted on the wine. Bourbon barrels are also first toasted, but then they are charred, giving the inside of the barrel a distinctive alligatoring with longer contact with the flame. Where toasting mitigates and mellows the oak, charring introduces caramel and vanilla notes to a spirit. For all the snobbery of Scotch aficionados, there’s a reason it’s often aged in used bourbon barrels.
Enough with the technical stuff, right? What you really want to know is what you should be drinking, right? If you’re just going to mix your bourbon with cola or ginger beer, a handle of Jim Beam or Wild Turkey will do just fine. However, if you want to actually taste the whiskey, something a little higher on the shelf is recommended. Here in our offices, we like to celebrate 5 o’clock anywhere with Woodford Reserve Double Oak, although Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek is a fine substitute. For a truly top-notch tipple, Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection is worth exploring. With a variety of experiments in different aging media, the collection offers a range of superior whiskeys to keep even the most particular gentleman engaged. Or even you.