Bourbon has made a comeback in recent years. In my mind, it is an American tradition. After all George Washington helped make bourbon what it is today. I also find it to be quite versatile. Whether you’re just starting out with whiskey or well versed, there is much to like about how accessible Bourbon can be as well as how complex it can be.
By definition, bourbon has to be distilled and aged in the US (but not limited to Kentucky), consist of at least 51% corn and aged in new white oak charred barrels. Bourbon barrels can only be used once and are often then used for aging other spirits like rum. They are also sent to other distilleries and countries (for e.g. Scotland) where other types of whiskies can be aged. You can choose to age other liquids in these bourbon barrels. Like maple syrup!
Historically, Americans drank white whiskey, essentially moonshine, until bourbon was transported via river routes and aged in barrels to make the taste mellower, smoother, sweeter and full bodied. In today’s world, this is also an area where you see a lot of innovation with smaller craft distilleries.
What are some of your favorite bourbons and why do you like them? Here are some of mine in no particular order. Obviously, Pappy Van Winkle needs to introduction but here are some less expensive options:
Bulleit Bourbon: 45% ABV, Kentucky Straight Bourbon aged for about 6 years and contains about 28% rye along with corn. To me, Bulleit Bourbon is very easy to drink and can be had neat. I love its reddish color. It is rich, velvety, fruity and has the perfect balance of vanilla and spice – where the spicy notes come from the rye. It also tastes a little bit like toffee. If a friend isn’t too familiar with bourbon, I like to start them with Bulleit. It always works and they always end up asking for more because it’s so delicious.
Angel’s Envy: 43% ABV, Kentucky Straight Bourbon aged for a about 5-6 years and then rested in port casks for about for about 5-6 months.. It is created by the very talented Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson. Lighter in color, what I love about this bourbon is the end espresso and chocolate note as well as its citrus/slightly minty smell. Also, depending on how sensitive your palette is you might also get a hint of bitter cherry and almond flavor. This is another bourbon I find to be very accessible because of it’s lower ABV.
Four Roses Small Batch: 50% ABV, Kentucky Single Barrel Straight Bourbon aged for at least 8 years made from 60% corn, 30% rye and 5% malt. This is one of my all time favorites and I really want to visit the distillery too! While I love this bourbon for its plum and maple syrup notes along with a spicy rye finish and rosy color, I especially love its backstory. Created by Paul Jones Jr in then 1800s, the love of his life swore to wear four roses to a ball should she accept his proposal of marriage. This bourbon is a labor of love and we can tell this romance had a happy ending. What do you think he would’ve called it, had she rejected his proposal?
Kings County Bourbon: 45% ABV, distilled right here in Brooklyn, aged less than four years and made from locally sourced NY corn along with Scottish malted barley, this is a bourbon like no other. It is sweet, smokey, oaky and, to me, smells like Indian spices. This is great on its own or on the rocks. I also like that it is not as sweet as it smells. There is a certain intrigue behind this bourbon. When you have a chance look up Colin Spoelman, the owner of Kings County Distillery as well Nicole Austin, their master blender. In fact, King County Distillery is a must visit if you live in the area. Or even if you don’t!
Basil Hayden: 40% ABV lightly bodied, small batch, aged for about 8 years, made with corn, rye and barley, it is named after a distiller of the same name from the 1700’s. This bourbon is quite dry and tastes strongly of spicy rye along with a minty finish. It also tastes a little bit like tea to me and always reminds me of the scene in Django Unchained when Leonardo DiCaprio orders a bourbon and sweet tea cocktail. I think this whiskey would taste great on its own but also with a splash of sweet tea.
Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon: 47% ABV though this can vary. This is a single barrel chill filtered bourbon. Besides having a characteristic bottle with 8 different race horse stopper designs the collection of bottles tell a full story of the race horse figurine. To taste, this whiskey is more complex. Starting with caramel and honey notes, its mouth feel is quite silky. To me this bourbon tastes ever so slightly like Creme Brûlée.
Hudson’ Baby Bourbon: 45% ABV, from Tuthilltown Distillery first to operate in NY state after Prohibition this bourbon is aged for 3 months and made from 100% corn! Each bottled is hand waxed and numbered giving it that personal touch. You should also visit their distillery and ask them about their sonic maturation process. Quite different to the taste, I like this for its ginger spice flavor which is more prominent on the rocks. This bourbon is also quite oaky. While some might say this is a beginner’s bourbon, I feel this has quite an acquired taste so this one bourbon that you might not like at first sip. But give it time and I promise you’ll feel the love.
Knob Creek Single Barrel: 60% ABV this has a kick to it! Kentucky Straight Bourbon aged 9 years this is a complex bourbon. High in proof and flavor, it tastes of vanilla, almonds (to me), and all spice. This is a bold whiskey so I prefer it with a splash of water of 2 ice cubes over drinking it neat. Adding ice to it is always interesting to me because ice enhances the flavor and makes this bourbon taste like apple pie. Also, if you’re like me and you get excited by the difference in flavor of a single barrel small batch bourbon, this is the bourbon for you.
Big Bottom Bourbon Wine Cask Line: 45-50% ABV, from Oregon this bourbon line stands out for its 6 month Port and Zinfandel cask finish process and its 36% rye content. I like this line of bourbons a lot because Ted Pappas (the creator of BBB) takes great care in pairing their bourbons with the right type of wine cask. While the Port cask bourbon tastes like rum raisin, cherry, brandy and red wine, the Zinfandel cask bourbon tastes a bit like pear, cinnamon and spice. I can’t pick one over the other, so you’ll have to try both and tell me what you think!