September is National Bourbon Month. With the temperature theoretically cooling down a bit it is the perfect time to celebrate America’s “native spirit”. Bourbon can be enjoyed in numerous ways, whether you are using it in a classic or contemporary cocktail, sipping it by a fire outside, or adding it to your favorite dish or sauce this sweet liquid will be sure to entice.
Before we get into all of the fun stuff let’s start with a little history. Bourbon was first commercially distilled in Kentucky in 1783 when Evan Williams opened his distillery in Louisville. In 1823 the first sour mash whiskey was produced. A sour mash is a way of recycling some of the yeast from the previous fermentation. This revolutionized bourbon production and paved the way for how whiskey was distilled in both Kentucky and Tennessee. The birth of Prohibition in 1920 saw many distilleries close their doors. Thankfully when Prohibition was repealed the Government granted 10 licenses and bourbon production resumed. The year 1973 was rough for bourbon, as vodka became the number one spirit in terms of sales. This was partly due to James Bond’s affinity for vodka martinis – shaken, not stirred. But vodka was also being marketed as a lighter, more feminine drink. Thankfully, this would not last forever. Today bourbon is stronger than ever. In 2016, it was reported that Kentucky had five million barrels aging in rick-houses, the most in recent history.
With more and more bourbons coming to market it is no surprise they are coming from states other than Kentucky. Small craft distilleries are popping up everywhere, and most are bringing new bourbon to the market. Now I know what some might be thinking, that bourbon only comes from Kentucky.
Unfortunately, that is not true. For a whiskey to be classified as bourbon it has to meet a few criteria. The first is that the mash bill must contain a minimum of fifty one percent corn followed by some percentage of rye or wheat, and finally malted barley. Then the bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred America oak barrels. After the whiskey comes out those barrels they must be used for something else.
Small batch, single barrel, cask strength, cask finished, what do these terms mean? Small batch is a clever way to market a blended bourbon. There is absolutely nothing wrong with blended bourbons. Blending is a great way to make sure your whiskey has a consistent flavor. Knob Creek, Elijah Craig, 1792, and Coopers Mark are all examples of small batch bourbon.
Single barrel bourbon is just that – bourbon bottled from a single barrel. Because of this the flavor will vary from barrel to barrel. Granted, all of them may be great, but certain barrels from any given distillery might really shine. Kappy’s also picks signature barrels and offers them throughout the year. These releases known as store picks are usually highly sought after. Blanton’s, Smooth Ambler 11yr, and Henry McKenna 10yr are all examples of single barrel bourbon.
Cask Strength is a single barrel that goes straight into the bottle from the cask. These can range anywhere from 110 all the way up to 149 proof. Cask strength offers the most flavor, as the whiskey has not been proofed down yet. Along with an intense flavor they offer a fair amount of heat due to the high alcohol content. It is an acquired taste but if you can muster it, you will be in for a real treat. With that being said, adding a little water or ice to water down a cask strength bourbon is perfectly fine as well.
Finally, we have cask finished bourbons. There is a bit of controversy over this. Purists will say bourbon should not be flavored and while these are not, the casks that the distilleries use have held wines and other spirits which do impart a flavor that complements the bourbon. Jefferson’s and Angel’s Envy are just two examples of this. Jefferson’s has experimented the most with cask finishing using wine casks, rum casks and even Armagnac barrels. Angel’s Envy has always advertised on their bottle that they finish in port casks.
How is it best way to enjoy your bourbon? Bourbon is great in cocktails. Classics like an Old Fashioned (watch our drink recipe video) are always great and easy to enjoy whether you like the pre- or post-prohibition version. Something a bit more contemporary like the Gold Rush combines bourbon with honey and lemon for a refreshing drink great for the spring or fall. Experiment with different types of honey to tweak the flavor. Or you can enjoy it just on its own either neat or with a cube or two. Single barrel bourbons tend to drink best this way in my opinion. Do not think your bourbon consumption has to be limited to drinking. Bourbon is great to use in cooking; add it to your favorite marinade or baked goods. Pork plays well with bourbon as do apples.
Well I hope this helps open up the world of bourbon to you. Feel free to stop by one of our locations and find a new favorite or revisit an old friend.