An introduction to bourbon - American whiskey

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An introduction to Bourbon
Food article / commentary

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

For an article also posted on this site we sought out some of the must-drink single malt Scotch whiskies and we promised to have a look at the other side of the Atlantic to see if whiskey, particularly that known as bourbon would create as much interest.
Well, we should start by saying that we found some stunning bourbons on offer. However, we think that the purists will probably continue to gravitate to single malt Scotch as a finer example of the art of distilling. (Sorry USA!)
Let's see why.
Bourbon, by US law, must contain a mash of at least 51% corn and be stored in charred, new American white oak barrels (they can be stored in any oak barrels but everyone seems to use the white oak) for at least two years.
There are also strict rules about additives - it not being legal to add any sweeteners or colouring agents at the bottling stage. Apart from this, the process is very similar to the production of Scotch. Make some beer and then distil it!
Although there are no defined geographical areas for bourbon, the only spirits with this classification are in the state of Kentucky. So, even though the venerable Jack Daniels which has many of the same characteristics as a bourbon (although it is drip-filtered though charcoal), it is called a Tennessee whiskey.
You will often see terms such as small batch or single barrel in relation to bourbons. These are mainly marketing hype, but small batch usually means that the bourbon has been blended from a limited number of barrels and single barrel means that it has been made from a single barrel of whiskey, hence is similar to a pure malt.
To drink bourbon use a large wine glass or a brandy snifter and drink them neat. Ice will immediately kill a lot of the aromas and the more delicate nuances of flavour.
So, what ones should you seek out. Like Scotch, there are some that are just so difficult to find that there is no point in recommending them. The three that we ended up with are all easy to locate in a number of countries.
Surprisingly, no one bourbon stood out head and shoulders above the rest. The top ten were all very close.
Let's start with a very readily available bourbon. We were entranced by the Wild Turkey Rare Breed. A powerful drink with lots of spices and vanilla and the ever-present caramel. Yet there is an elegant overtone to this bourbon which is quite appealing.
Our next recommendation is Bookers. This is a brute of a drink. Huge, powerful, up-front and with smoke coming through on both the nose and the palate. Take a sip of this and then see how long it hangs around!
For those wanting to get into bourbon and not wanting an big, up-front drink then the elegant and refined Woodford Reserve (sold in an elegant and refined bottle) might be a very good choice. This is a complex bourbon that lasts on the palate and has layer after layer of complex, but not aggressive, flavours.
Also impressive are Elijah Craig 18yo, Blantons, Rock Hill Farm and Van Winkle Family Reserve 13yo.
And, if you want a good value bourbon at a lower price than the ones we have recommended then you can't go past the one that started the recent revival of small batch bourbons, namely Makers Mark.
So, after tasting our way through the long list of Scotch whisky and bourbon, which would we rather? It's a bit like saying is seafood better than steak. It all depends on the circumstances and what you feel like at the time. But if we were stranded on a desert island and could only take one bottle it would probably be Lagavulin or Ardbeg or Springbank rather than Wild Turkey or Woodford Reserve.
 
     
     
     


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