Ah, bourbon. Is there ever a time when it’s not appropriate? It’s what you want on a cold night before a roaring fire (or rattling radiator). And it’s just as satisfying on a hot summer day mixed into a classic mint julep or sweet tea. Luckily, there’s no shortage of bourbon lining back bars and liquor store shelves these days.
Sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have increased more than 50 percent over the past five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and the most premium slice of the category has enjoyed more than 150 percent growth. The recent spike has sparked an onslaught of new brands, and old brands are doing their best to keep up with a steady stream of new expressions. Amid all this abundance, it can be difficult to settle on a bourbon that’s right for you.
“There’s so much high-quality stuff being made,” says Kevin Brodeur, beverage director at Maysville in New York City, which stocks at least 175 American whiskeys and offers a Bourbon 101 course. “Newbies tend to ask for something light or sweet. But with more experienced bourbon drinkers, the conversation can go deep. We’ll try to introduce them to smaller brands they might not have heard of.”
And yet big is beautiful.
The term “mixing bourbon” has such negative connotations. But a solid go-to bourbon, something you can use in cocktails or pour yourself neat after a long day, is key. It might not be especially fancy or cost all that much, but it’s reliable: You can bet most bars and liquor stores stock it.
For an entry-level bourbon, Brodeur recommends recognizable (read: big) brands. Not only do they tend to be approachable, with traditional mash bills that deliver quintessential bourbon flavors — vanilla, caramel, spice — but they are also usually more affordable. Buffalo Trace, for example, offers great value, decent complexity, and not too much heat. Four Roses and Woodford Reserve are other stellar examples.
“I’m a Wild Turkey guy myself,” he adds. “It’s a basic whiskey. But you don’t have to be drinking your best stuff when you’re fixing yourself a drink at home after a hard Tuesday.”
Bills, bills, bills.
For your next-level bourbon, you’ll want to pay attention to the mash bill. Wheated bourbons, for example, like Maker’s Mark, tend to be creamier, sweeter, and softer — and therefore popular among newcomers to bourbon. Brodeur points to Larceny, a wheated bourbon from the Heaven Hill family of whiskeys.
High-rye bourbons, on the other hand, like Basil Hayden, show more spice and acidity, perhaps with a green note, like mint or fennel. Redemption Rye’s High-Rye Bourbon is a whopping 36 percent rye, and it shows: It’s spicy and herbaceous. High-corn mash bill bourbons tend to be round and full, with plenty of caramel. McKenzie Bourbon, made by Finger Lakes Distilling in New York state, is made with 70 percent locally sourced corn.
“There are alternative mash bills, too,” says Brodeur. “Companies are starting to use nontraditional grains, like millet or oats.” Chicago-based Koval Distillery uses millet in its bourbon recipe, imparting a licorice note.
“Something that I’m seeing a lot of is barrel-proof releases,” says Chris Esteve, resident bourbon expert at Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House in New Orleans. “Also, secondary aging in wine barrels and different types of oak.”
Scotch makers have long finished their whiskey in sherry, madeira, and port casks, but it’s new to bourbon. A whiskey finished in a sherry cask might show a briny character; one finished in a port cask may offer dried-fruit notes. Hillrock Distillery in New York state has taken the idea to the next level with its Solera Aged Bourbon, aged like sherry in a series of barrels where a portion of liquid is removed periodically and new whiskey added. This way, the spirit matures slowly. Before bottling, it’s finished in ex–oloroso sherry casks.
Stay local (or don’t).
A popular misconception is that it has to come from Kentucky, but bourbon can legally be made anywhere in the United States. It’s great news for proponents of the local movement, which has spread from food to wine and spirits. Microdistillers across the country are sourcing local grains and even aging in barrels made from nearby oak trees in an effort to distinguish themselves from Kentucky bourbon makers rather than emulating them.
Of course, not every distillery that bills itself as local truly is. A number of small, craft distillers known as NDPs (non-distiller producers) buy whiskey from out of state before finishing and bottling it themselves. Others make their own but speed up the aging process by using small barrels, heating their warehouses or agitating barrels. A new technology uses ultrasonic sound waves to agitate the whiskey, aging it in minutes.
“I don’t discriminate,” says Brodeur. “It comes down to what’s in the bottle: Does it taste good?” He points to NDPs High West in Park City, Utah, and Jefferson’s. Chea Beckley, beverage director at Proof on Main in Louisville, has an NDP favorite of his own. Old Scout by Smooth Ambler Spirits in West Virginia is a high-rye straight bourbon, also available as a single-barrel cask-strength spirit.
As bourbon’s spiritual home, Kentucky has the largest, oldest distilleries in the country, many of which produce smaller-batch bourbons you’ve likely never heard of. Heaven Hill is known for its Evan Williams and Elijah Craig lines, but one of its unsung whiskeys is the Henry McKenna Single Barrel, a 10-year-old bonded bourbon.
Splurge a little.
It’s nearly impossible to have a discussion about bourbon these days without mentioning the Pappy Van Winkle phenomenon. While the highly sought-after whiskey is undeniably delicious, $100-plus for an ounce of liquid is out of reach for most. Never mind the cost of an entire bottle or the effort required to locate one. Luckily, Pappy isn’t the only great whiskey out there. Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series allows you to taste bourbons 15 years and older. Michter’s, a bartender favorite, offers both 10- and 20-year aged bourbons.
“The allure that the Van Winkle family has developed around its bourbon is amazing,” says Esteve. “However, with all due respect to the good folks over at Pappy, I’m not sure any bourbon could live up to the hype that surrounds it.”
It’s not just age that makes Pappy so coveted, but the wheated mash bill. Esteve suggests such alternatives as Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year Old, made using bourbon from the Pappy distillery.
Beckley likes the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection but is not so quick to dismiss the Pappy: “It’s worth every penny to the right person at the right time.”