Bourbon whiskey is a uniquely American spirit that, along with my homebrewed cider, has become my go-to alcoholic beverage. If you just want a list of great bourbons to try, skip to my recommendations in Part 2.
What is whiskey?
Whiskey is any fermented grain beverage (aka beer) that has been distilled, which concentrates its alcohol and removes the sugars and many other flavors of the original product, but keeps enough of them to still have the distinctively sweet whiskey flavor. Fermented fruit beverages, such as wine or cider, that are distilled are called brandy or eau de vie. The latter is French for water of life, and that same phrase in Latin, ‘aqua vitae’, became uisce beatha in Gaelic, which eventually turned into the English word ‘whiskey’.
Similar to brandies like Cognac, whiskies today are almost always aged a few to several years in oak barrels. Oak happens to be an excellent wood for barreling spirits because it doesn’t leak or poison you, and aging in wood improves the flavor by contributing toasty, wood-y & vanilla-y notes. Charring the barrel, which is required for bourbon, also mellows and purifies the whiskey, removing harsher flavors over time, as well as adding unique flavors. Think of this charred inner layer of the barrel as a charcoal filter that also adds deliciousness. Mmmm….
Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whiskies are made principally of barley, which is also the primary grain in beer. Malt whiskies such as Single Malt Scotch are made entirely of malted barley, whereas blended whiskies can be made of neutral grain spirits (aka vodka, usually made from corn because it’s cheap) or other grain spirits. The ‘Single’ in Single Malt Scotch refers to the requirement that the spirit be made in one distillery over one distilling season (as opposed to combining whiskies from multiple distilleries or whiskies from different years of distillation.) Canadian whiskies are somewhat similar to American ones in the grains they use, especially their frequent use of rye, but they are often blended with tasteless neutral grain spirits, and thus not as characterful as American whiskies.
What is bourbon whiskey?
American whiskies include bourbon, Tennessee, rye, wheat, and malt whiskies. Depending on the style, they are made of corn (maize to those of you outside of the United States), rye, barley malt, and sometimes wheat. Bourbon is the most popular type of American whiskey, and it must be made in the US to be called bourbon (but not exclusively in Kentucky, where most whiskey comes from, which is a common misunderstanding.) Bourbon is required by law to be made of at least 51% corn, with the remainder being rye, wheat, or barley. In practice, most bourbon is made with 60 – 80% corn, 10 – 20% rye (sometimes substituted with wheat instead), and 10 – 12% malted barley. Malted grains convert the starches in the other grains into sugars during the beer brewing process so that the yeasts can turn those sugars into sweet, sweet alcohol.
Bourbon must also be aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Since these barrels can only be used once for bourbon, they are often sent to Scotland to be used to age Scotch afterwards. The fact that they are used barrels is why Scotch has a mellower wood flavor profile than bourbon.
What bourbons should you try?
Now that you have some idea of what you’re drinking, let’s move on to what bottles to buy in Part 2.