The Kentucky Derby is right around the corner, which means that outside of Christmas, more bourbon will be sold over the next two weeks for various Derby celebrations than during any other time period. If you're one of these thousands of people buying bourbon, there are a few simple rules you should know before you confront the onslaught of image- and jargon-based marketing surrounding the American spirits industry. Mint juleps? We will get to those next week.
First, let's clear up a few things about bourbon. Most Americans are misinformed about what bourbon actually is. Several myths endure because of their seemingly simple, but flawed, explanation of the spirit. Chief among them is the concept that bourbon must be made in Bourbon County.
Yes, bourbon is made in Kentucky, but it is also made in Virginia, New York and, most recently, in Texas. The recently established Hye, Texas-based Garrison Brothers Distillery's upcoming product, is still in production, but anticipation is growing among local cocktail and spirit enthusiasts.
Among others, bourbon has four primary legal requirements:
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In other words, bourbon is an American spirit made predominantly from corn aged in new barrels. In addition to corn, bourbon producers use wheat or rye (rarely both) and usually a smaller portion of barley. The recipe used to produce the spirit influences its taste and character. Makers Mark, for example, uses a large portion of wheat in addition to the corn and barley. Makers Mark is therefore known as a wheated bourbon, and as such, has a sweeter, mellow flavor. Wild Turkey, on the other hand, uses a large amount of rye in its recipe and is, consequently, a spicier, bolder style of whiskey.
Bourbon is also aged in new charred oak barrels, meaning the barrels are burnt after assembly. The charring of new barrels imparts specific flavors on bourbon that differentiate it from other styles of whiskey. The trademark flavors of toast, vanilla and other spices are more noticeable in bourbon because of this requirement. Scotch producers, on the other hand, utilize used barrels, some of which have previously held bourbon. Among other differences, Scotch is generally aged for a longer period of time because it takes longer for a spirit to evolve and develop in used barrels. Additionally, the flavors imparted from the wood are less concentrated and toasted, yielding a spirit that has a different character and flavor that is less wood-focused than bourbon.
There are some simple ways to learn about the world of bourbon, but this necessitates suffering through the hardship of drinking various bottlings of America's finest spirit. Starters should visit a bar with an extensive spirit collection and sample bourbons that are aged for similar periods of time but are produced from different types of grain recipes. Ask your bartender to prepare a three-bourbon flight with one heavy in rye, one heavy in wheat, and one more middle-of-the-road option. Decide which you like the best and search for similar brands. Or try understanding what distinguishes each and choose based on your mood. This way of selecting spirits and cocktails is common with beer and wine, but it requires one to develop an appreciation for variety in stronger drinks as well.
Different styles of bourbon also work best in specific cocktails. Mint juleps, for example, benefit from certain types of bourbon over others. Which ones? You'll have to check back with us next week to find out. Until then, try and sample some different bourbons and determine which are your favorite. There's usually a good reason why you favor one over the others, and it doesn't have anything to do with the horses.