A Beginner's Guide to Bourbon

The colder months are a great time to explore America's brooding, corn-based spirit.


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For cocktailians who stick to clear spirits, Bourbon's smoky, spicy character can be a bit daunting. But these days, bartenders are more readily reaching for the brown stuff, adding it to the shaker for complex libations both classic and contemporary. Since eschewing it completely means missing out on a whole category of drinks so fitting for this time of year, we offer tips for Bourbon newbies seeking to learn more about this brooding, all-American, corn-based spirit.

Bourbon Basics
Let's start with the facts. By law, Bourbon is a spirit distilled from at least 51% corn (the remainder of the blend can be wheat, rye and/or malted barrel), distilled to 160 proof or less, and aged in new, charred American oak barrels. To be called Straight Bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years though it's typically aged for four or more. Named for Bourbon County, Kentucky and closely associated with the area, Bourbon can actually be produced anywhere in the U.S.

The Mash Bill Matters
Bourbon's grain composition (called its "mash bill") vastly affects flavor. "Bourbons with a larger rye content will have a spicy and peppery flavor, while those that use wheat often have a smoother, slightly sweeter flavor," explains Owen Thomson, Operations Manager for the aptly named Bourbon in Washington, DC (2348 Wisconsin Avenue), which stocks 140 different kinds of the spirit. He finds the spicier, rye-based Bourbons (like Bulleit and Basil Hayden's) show best in cocktails that usually have some kind of sweetening agent to play off the liquor's bitey notes.

Bourbons have a larger amount of congeners than clearer spirits. These impurities are responsible for aroma, flavor and color, and augment its character and complexity. But variations exist among brands and styles. "I prefer the mixable, lower proof Bourbons in my cocktails and the flavorful, higher proof ones neat or on the rocks," says Bernie Lubbers, Whiskey Professor for Knob Creek Bourbon. Small batch spirits like Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve and Booker's, for example, are particularly suitably for drinking neat or with a touch of ice or water.

From Amateur to Aficionado
The most surefire way to glean a good understanding of Bourbon is through sniffing, tasting, comparing and contrasting. "Go to a place that has an expansive selection of the spirit and a knowledgeable guide who can educate the newbie and assist in the learning process," suggests John Snedden, founder of Rocklands Barbeque, whose Bourbon Club encourages members to sample their way through all sixty-three varieties. Many choose to sip them with dinner—Bourbon's smokiness (due to the aging process in charred oak barrels) lends it a natural affinity for smoked, barbequed or grilled dishes.

As far as Bourbon cocktails, Thomson recommends starting with the classic Manhattan. "It truly allows the whiskey to take center stage while taking a little of the heat off and making it more accessible to the beginner palate," he notes. Those ready to branch out might try the Boulevadier, a Manhattan variation with a healthy dose of Campari, or the Stone Fence, a mixture of Bourbon and house made apple cider. Jim Beam's latest incarnation, Red Stag, infuses the spirit with the subtle fruit flavor of black cherries, making it an easy drinking option for both the Bourbon novice and the devotee. And Woodford Reserve's Citrus Manhattan offers a zesty, tangy twist on the classic.

"Some consumers are hesitant to try dark spirits mostly because they don't know how to serve them," says Lubbers. The following recipes should help banish all apprehension.


Boulevadier
Courtesy of Owen Thomson, Bourbon, Washington, DC

1 ½ oz. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Dolin Rouge Vermouth
Cherry (for garnish)

Combine all in a mixing glass, stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Skyscraper
Courtesy of John Snedden, Rocklands Barbeque & Grilling Company, Arlington, VA

2 oz. Bourbon
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
4 oz. cranberry juice
½ oz. lime juice

Combine all in a mixing glass, stir with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.

Citrus Manhattan
Courtesy of Woodford Reserve

1 ½ oz. Woodford Reserve Bourbon
¾ oz. simple syrup
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. fresh orange juice
1 pinch ground cloves
Dash Angostura bitters
Orange twist, for garnish

Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website, http://www.kellymagyarics.com/.

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