The Best Bourbon Whiskey
When we talk about the best bourbon whiskey, we're talking about pure nectar in a glass. But we can't just start at the top! Let's take it from the beginning. How can we learn about bourbon in a way that's fun and entertaining? Who am I kidding. Bourbon is already fun and entertaining! So let's start with the basics: What is the difference between bourbon vs whiskey?
Perhaps you've heard this before: all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. True story. If you want to be a bourbon fanatic, then you'll learn this pretty quickly. All you have to do is go to the grocery store.
Whiskey (or whisky, if you're a Scot) is liquor that is distilled from fermented grain mash. We will talk about distillation in another posts as well. There are a bunch of different ways you can do this. Grain varieties usually include wheat, rye, barley, and corn.
The distillate is then aged in wooden barrels, quite often oak. It sits in these barrels for a very long time, sometimes the longer the better. While it's in there, it interacts with the wood and takes on some of those flavors.
Whiskey is made all over the world and there are many popular styles including Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, and American whiskey. The most popular form of American whiskey is bourbon, which has its own specific definition.
The Definition of Bourbon
In an interview a while back, the Master Distiller from Maker's Mark said “Bourbon needs to be produced in America and made from 51 percent corn, and whiskey does not.” Bourbon also needs to be aged in new charred-oak barrels. Whiskey is also aged in oak barrels, but they do not need to be new or charred.
“Lastly, to be called bourbon, the liquid needs to be distilled to no more than 160 proof and entered into the barrel at 125.” Other whiskies can be distilled up to 190 proof. Apparently there is an actual law that governs bourbon and that's what it says. Incidentally, the law also says bourbon needs to be aged for at least 4 years.
Although bourbon is thought to have been invented in 1789, the standards for bourbon distilling was written in the Bottle in Bond Act of 1897. Prior to that, it was like the wild west of distilling. People were all over the place. They would dilute it or add stuff that really wasn't supposed to be there.
It all started when Elijah Craig decided to age his whiskey in a charred oak barrel. Elijah was a baptist reverend in Georgetown, Kentucky, who had an interest in distilling and entrepreneurship. According to the Elijah Craig company, they don't know exactly how he came up with it. It may have been an accidental fire or he may have been using some sugar barrels that he decided to char. Either way, that's how the whole thing got started!
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The Difference Between Bourbon Whiskey and other Whiskeys
Now that we know exactly what bourbon whiskey is made of, what does that mean for you, the beholder of this fine liquid? Well, the taste is pretty specific for one thing. A great flavor is what we are all looking for. It's the main difference between bourbon whiskey and other whiskeys.
Remember back in the 80's when American was witness to the great Cola Wars between Coke and Pepsi? There were countless commercials with big stars and lots of lights, including Michael Jackson who's hair caught on fire during filming of one scene. But, in addition to those big budget commercials, there was something called the Pepsi Challenge.
The Pepsi Challenge was when they would setup a table in some big city and give people cola in plain white cups. Then the people would have to choose the ones that they liked. According to Pepsi, people chose their beverage over Coca-Cola. Hence, they won the Pepsi Challenge.
Of course, it would prove to be difficult to unseat the heavily favored champion. I don't think Pepsi ever took over Coke's majority market share. However, you probably see what I'm getting at. You can take the Bourbon Challenge!
The Bourbon Challenge
When learning about bourbon, one of the best ways to do it is with side by side tastings. However, this type of tasting is going to be different from taking a cola.
Tasting liquor in general takes a lot of getting used to. If you are in college, then perhaps you aren't used to sipping such a strong drink. We all remember taking shots before a big night out as youngsters. However, a good bourbon, of which you are trying to learn all the subtle flavors, can take more time. Also, the higher alcohol content versions will overwhelm the taste buds even further.
In any case, here's how I would begin the tasting journey. The place to start is with whiskeys that are very different and then work your way towards similar flavors. I would start with a bourbon of course, and then put it up against something that is very different like a moderately peaty scotch. A peaty flavor is like a very smoky taste.
Pick a midrange liquor to taste at first. The lower end liquors will be more difficult to sip and hold in your mouth because of the harsh flavors. On the other hand, if you taste a really expensive liquor first, your palate won't be developed enough to fully appreciate it's greatness. Plus, they cost a lot.
So if you take, for example, a $30-$40 bottle of bourbon, you can get some really nice flavor. You could try the Bulleit Bourbon 10 year or the Four Roses Single Barrel or even the Makers 46. These are really great midrange choices. They all score in the 92-94 point range on wine enthusiast, so you can't go wrong with them.
Then you can pit the bourbon against a decent scotch whisky. For example, perhaps you could choose a 10-12 year old Glenfiddich or Macallan. They are high quality scotch's that also score in the low to mid 90's. If you're not familiar with peaty flavors, these will be a good start. These aren't going to be the most peaty tasting, but you may get a sense for what peat tastes like.
Japanese Whiskeys have become very popular over the recent years. You could try one of these as well. These whiskeys are scotch style, but generally less peaty. Still, they're lighter in color and share some of the scotch characteristics.
Don't forget to cleanse your palate!
One more thing when you do this challenge. You need to cleanse your palate in between drinks. I'm sure you've been wine tasting before and seen how they drink some water or have some crackers in between the different varietals. This is because your taste buds will sense the flavors differently depending on what you taste right before.
This also goes for liquor. If you taste Bourbon A before Bourbon B, you will get different flavors than if you taste B before A. It's an amazing thing. To combat this influence, and get a true sense of flavors, you need to cleanse your palate. You can drink some water or have something bland like crackers.
Now, off you go to do that challenge!
What did you think?
So were you able to tell the different flavors of whiskey? Did you like one more than the other? Could you taste more of the alcohol in one or the other?
Now that you've familiarized yourself with scotch and bourbon, you may want to expand your repertoire to include Canadian Whiskey or other whiskeys from around the world. However, for the time being, we will explore bourbon a little further.
What is a bourbon supposed to taste like?
As we talked about before, bourbon is made from 51% corn. Here in America, we use corn for a lot of things including as a sweetener. Since the corn subsidies took hold, the entire country can't stop producing it for everything.
In any case, with corn, you would expect to have a sweeter liquor than with other distilled vegetables like potato or malted barley, which makes scotch. Did you taste it?
Typical bourbon flavors also include oak. Perhaps you remember that bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels? The oak flavor comes through in the bourbon. With your next taste, try to focus on the oak tones.
Other flavors include things like vanilla and caramel. It's funny to think of all these sweet flavors in a liquor. Usually they make me think of dessert, but they're there if you look for them.
The other big characteristic you can look for is spice. Most bourbons look for a balance between spicy and sweet, but it's difficult to manage. Some bourbons will be very spicy and some will be very sweet. You can decide which one you like.
And of course, each bourbon will taste different. In fact, there are many bourbons that are made using the same mash bill or recipe. The distiller chooses to sell different labels of bourbon because even these can taste different. Even if they use the same mash bill, they may be aged for a longer or shorter time and may be stored in a different place. If a bourbon is aged for a long time in the mountains, it may taste different from one that is aged at sea level for a short time. There is even a bourbon by Jefferson's that is aged on the ocean! It's a really nice bourbon by the way.
You can imagine that aging a bourbon over 10 years or 20 years could be pretty stressful. What if it doesn't turn out right? Well, after generations of distilling, these guys have it down pretty well. So what's your next task in getting to know this beautiful tonic?
Now it's time for you to decide. Take a look at the reviews I have done or feel free to suggest one! I'd love to hear any of your recommendations for a tasting! We could do it together!
Remember, it takes time to develop a strong palate, but I have faith in you. If I can do it, you can do it. Soon, you'll find the best bourbon whiskey for your taste buds. Take your time and enjoy the journey!
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