For a country that was under Prohibition less than 100 years ago, the United States is making some pretty darn good drinks. American wines -- those made in California and beyond (Washington, Oregon, New York State, etc.) -- are at the forefront of the industry. American beer is a truly global phenomenon, and while the big guys dominate sales worldwide there are some pretty tasty brews being made at the smaller, more focused regional breweries.
In the world of American spirits, bourbon is king, and Kentucky its kingdom. There are a few notable exceptions -- Tennessee's Jack Daniels being the most prominent -- but for the most part, American distilleries are located in the northern section of Kentucky. Bourbon's star is on the rise these days thanks to whiskey drinkers' curious palates as well as the popularity of TV's Mad Men, a booze-soaked tale of ad execs in the 1960s (full disclosure -- I'm a big fan).
So what is bourbon? Well, in order to be called bourbon whiskey (American and Irish whiskey are spelled with an "e," Canadian and Scotch whisky are not), the stuff has to be made from at least 51 per cent corn. While it can't be higher than 79 per cent corn, it's typically in the 70 per cent range, with the rest made up of malt barley, rye and/or wheat. This higher amount of corn in bourbon gives it that trademark hint of sweetness.
The ground mixture of grains (a.k.a. the "mash bill") is mixed with water, and occasionally with a "sour mash" -- remnants of the solids from a previous mash bill. Yeast is then added and the whole concoction is fermented and distilled to a potent 130 proof (65 per cent alcohol) or higher. This is taken and placed in new, charred oak barrels.
While there's no minimum aging time, spending some months (or years) in oak imparts both colour and flavour. The distiller eventually removes the bourbon from the barrel, mixing water in to bring it down to around 80 proof (40 per cent alcohol), the minimum for bourbon. In fact, most bourbons are in the neighbourhood of 42-45 per cent alcohol, a touch stronger than your typical Scotch whisky. Bourbon aged for a minimum of two years that hasn't had any flavours, colours or other spirits added can be labelled as "straight bourbon."
Much in the same way Champagne must be from that particular French region, so too must bourbon be from the United States. Yes, like Champagne, there are some cheapie knock-offs from questionable spirit-producing countries using the term "bourbon," but respectable distillers worldwide recognize the history and unique characteristics of bourbon.
While most bourbon drinkers enjoy the drink straight up or on the rocks, there are some southern-inspired, bourbon-based cocktails that have become more popular as the whisky's popularity has increased. Mad Men fans will be familiar with the Old Fashioned -- a cocktail featuring bourbon, bitters, simple syrup/dissolved sugar, an orange and/or lemon slice and a cherry poured over ice. The Whiskey Sour is another classic cocktail featuring bourbon (although it is often made with rye whisky, as well), this time with lemon juice, sugar and a similar garnish of a slice of citrus and a cherry. As is the case with the Old Fashioned, a Whiskey Sour is often served over ice.
JIM BEAM BLACK (Kentucky -- $27.25, Liquor Marts)
While there's no real standout aromatics in the Jim Beam Black (other than a hint of spice), this is unmistakably bourbon -- there's slightly more sweetness to the nose than rye or Scotch. Aged six years, the spice -- pepper, to be precise -- on the palate works well with that sweetness. It's a lean bourbon that lacks weight on the palate, but is generally a decent value and would work well in bourbon-based cocktails.
LABROT & GRAHAM WOODFORD RESERVE DISTILLER'S SELECT (Kentucky -- $43.99, Liquor Marts)
The softest and smoothest of the three on the nose, the Woodford Reserve shows great caramel, honey, vanilla, toasted nut and pear aromas. There's almost a hint of sweetness on the palate thanks to the vanilla and caramel flavours, and attractive fruit notes -- cinnamon apples and apricot -- are delicious. Despite clocking in at a whopping 45.2 per cent alcohol, this straight bourbon is highly sippable neat... no ice, no garnishes or anything of the sort required.
MAKER'S MARK (Kentucky -- $35.99, Liquor Marts)
This iconic straight bourbon is certainly aromatic, with a pointedly herbal/mint note working well with the toasty, caramel component. It's deceptively smooth for 45 per cent alcohol, with a good balance of leaner flavours and that toasty caramel component working well with peppery notes to build into a warm, lengthy finish. For an extra kick, try the Maker's Mark 46, an intense, peppery bourbon finished with oak staves that's 47 per cent alcohol.