Bourbon: Big & Bold!
Besides food, genealogy is probably my biggest passion. My roots are deep in Kentucky, and not surprisingly, steeped in bourbon. Both sides of my family settled in Kentucky before it became a state and include more than a few whiskey makers (both legal and otherwise) and a lot of whiskey drinkers. That said, until recently I was not a bourbon fan, more inclined to favor gin and vodka as my tipple of choice. It wasn’t that I didn’t like its taste, it was just so …so overbearing.
I learned firsthand how bourbon was made in high school when I toured the now defunct Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky. It all begins with the mash—mostly corn, but with wheat and sometime rye added as well—rye produces a heartier, darker product. Most often, some mash from a previous batch—called sour mash—is added.
Scour the Jack Daniels sour mash whiskey label, and nowhere will you find the word “bourbon,” It is bourbon, but made in Tennessee. At one point in time, bourbon could only come from Kentucky—specifically the area that was the old Bourbon County of Virginia and now comprises most of eastern Kentucky. Today, products labeled “bourbon” can be made anywhere in the country—American and Canadian law and European Union regulations require it to be made in the United States.
Federal standards require that bourbon be made from at least 51% corn; aged in new, charred barrels; and sold at a minimum 80 proof (40% alcohol). If it’s labeled “straight bourbon whiskey” that means it has been aged for four years or less. Most bottles of bourbon are blends from several different barrels of various age and formulas. Blending allows the maker to control the flavor, color and alcohol content. When other neutral grain sprits, flavorings, or colors are added, it must be labeled as “blended whiskey.” On the heels of the single malt whisky craze came the popularity of single barrel bourbons. These are premium whiskeys, made in small batches and usually of a higher proof.
Ironically, an often repeated story is that a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, invented bourbon. He probably didn’t, but even to this day the Baptists have a big impact on drinking in Kentucky. More than a third of the state’s counties are dry—the sale of alcoholic beverages prohibited. That may seem a contradiction in a place so synonymous with this uniquely American elixir. Knowing my genealogy, not so! Let’s just say that the men folk in my family have a reputation for high living and hard drinking, and the women were at the forefront of the temperance movement. Interestingly, the only bootlegger I ever met (not a relative) told me that he donated a small fortune to keep his county dry. It seems that the last thing he wanted was competition.
There’s no denying that bourbon has an incomparable nose and complex taste. For a long time I’ve known it could shame vanilla in a dessert and sass up a sauce. But I still didn’t favor bourbon as a cocktail until this spring
Back in Kentucky and on the Bourbon Trail—a circuit of distilleries radiating from Bardstown and Nelson County open to the public for touring and tasting—it was impossible to pass up a bourbon sampling at one of the state’s oldest bars, the Old Talbott Tavern. Here, my revelation was bourbon tastes best straight up! No ice and nothing more than a dash of water at most.
Suddenly all those insipid mint juleps that tasted like mouthwash downed on Derby Day, all those paper cups of bourbon and coke illicitly consumed in high school, and those watered-down highballs my mother always favored were exorcized.
That said, there is one mixed drink I do prefer made with bourbon: the Manhattan. I’ll close with a new spin on an old favorite, and as far as I’m concerned, the best Manhattan ever. Dubbed the Southern Slope at Brooklyn’s Clover Club, this is my take on their recipe.
The Southern Slope
2 oz. 100 proof (or higher) single barrel bourbon*
3/4 ounce. Punt e Mes Italian vermouth
1/2 ounce. Apricot brandy
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 maraschino cherry (marinated in Luxardo maraschino liqueur).
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice combine all the ingredients but the cherry and stir until well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with the cherry.
Makes 1 drink.
*I used Noah’s Mill, which is a high-proof (114.3), small batch bourbon made with rye, giving it a very robust flavor and dark amber color. It was perfect!