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Happy Birthday Bourbon

If you’ve ever heard anyone repeat the phrase “May the Fourth Be with You” it really has nothing to do with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Star Wars.

Bourbon fans know the truth is that it was on May 4, 1964 that the United States Congress gathered together in Washington, D.C. and by a majority vote passed a concurrent resolution that says, “Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” And with that, the amber spirit made from at least 51% corn that’s been distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in a new charred oak container at 125 proof or less became an official part of “Brand USA”.

Legend has it that the Reverend Elijah Craig invented bourbon at the end of the 1700’s when he decided to ship his corn whisky in a barrel that had been charred in a fire. Whether true or not, this has been the way bourbon has been made ever since. It took around 50 years before the name bourbon was officially brought into use and over another 120 before the current rules were codified into law.

Bourbon is now made in nearly every state in America though the preponderance still comes from those rolling hills of Kentucky. Bourbon’s popularity has grown so that now some bottles don’t last 10 minutes on the shelf if they ever even make it that far. I’m often surprised that here where I now make my home in China, I can more easily lay hands on some bottles, Blanton’s for example, than folks back in America and for similar prices.

My own journey with bourbon started in university.  Sure, I’d dabbled in whiskey before that but it quickly became my drink of choice. Maker’s Mark, produced at the longest-running distillery in America, was my go-to bottle.  As a wheated bourbon, it lacks the spicy kick of more rye heavy offerings and is an easy entry into the world of bourbon.  From there I quickly moved through the more affordable spectrum of the bourbon world.  Memorable favourites of my young road of discovery were Bulleit and Wild Turkey Rare Breed which quickly became a favourite as well with its invigorating bite.  The more I tried, the more I wanted to continue on the journey.

What I have learnt over the years is something really simple.  Bourbon, like Scotch and other aged spirits, can very much be a love or a hate relationship that is built on your first experience with the spirit.  A bad first experience will create a life-long intolerance, while a pleasant first-time experience will create love and curiosity to explore more.

Start YOUR Bourbon Journey

Here are my top three Bourbons for everyone to start their Bourbon life journey with.  Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve and Makers Mark.

As a side note, this list is based on a few things that I think are important:

  • Price (no sane person wants to spend huge amounts of money on their first three bottles)
  • Availability (something that always grates me is a list of apparently amazing bourbons, that no normal person can actually get their hands on)
  • Taste (the three I’ve picked below, cover the three main STYLES of bourbon from Kentucky –  a traditional low rye recipe such as Buffalo Trace, a higher rye recipe like Woodford Reserve and a wheated bourbon in Maker’s Mark. Why? Rye is the traditional flavor grain used for making bourbon, known for a “spicy” yet smooth taste.  Higher rye means more spice. A bourbon that is made with wheat, or “wheated”, is generally sweeter and milder.
  • Consistent ABV (alcohol content). I choose bourbons that are all 45% ABV, instead of bourbons with a higher ABV, which can be more potent.  By keeping the ABV the same, you can also taste more of the difference in the bourbon, rather than differences in alcohol content.
  • History.  These three bourbons represent some of the oldest and/or most storied distilleries in Kentucky.  Distilling began at the Woodford Reseve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky in 1780, and the distillery building was built in 1838.  As of 2010, this makes Woodford Reserve the oldest of the nine bourbon distilleries in Kentucky that are currently in operation.  However, the site hasn’t been continuously operational. Buffalo Trace claims the distillery is the oldest continuously-operating distillery in the United States.  Maker’s Mark is an iconic and distinctive brand.  You can easily distinguish it from the others, because of the red wax on the bottle.

Tips for Tasting Your Bourbon

  • Let it be known that there is a difference between drinking bourbon and tasting bourbon. Drinking bourbon is how you prefer to drink it, whether it is on the rocks, neat, or in a mixed drink.  Tasting bourbon is paying attention to the nuances and aromas without a mixer or anything to dull the flavors (You’ll be able to taste butterscotch, toffee, fruits, maple syrup, etc depending on the bourbon you taste AND how good you are at detecting the individual notes from the bourbon).
  • Pour a splash of bourbon in a glass, preferably a Glencairn glass, which will allow you to detect the various scents, such as caramel or vanilla.  The small base of the Glencairn glass allows you to get a good look at the appearance. Because of the design of the glass, it is easy to swirl the bourbon around, and the narrow neck allows the smell to gather under the edge and the smell of alcohol to vanish. But, don’t be worried if you don’t have a Glencairn glass, any glass will do just fine in a pinch!
  • Take a sip.  Swirl it around in your mouth.  Give it a bit of a chew (yes, chew, as if it was a nicely cooked, good old American steak.  The chewing motion releases saliva in your mouth which enhances taste buds.  Take in a bit of air into your mouth as if you’re doing a posh wine tasting.  Again, the air enhances the flavors.  Swallow.  Pause.  Consider the experience.  Then wait for a few minutes before you do the same thing all over again trying to find subtle differences between the first and the second taste.
  • Add water to the bourbon. Just a few drops of water can change the flavor and bring out several different notes.  Swirl the glass and starting the nosing process to pick up the smells of the bourbon.
  • Swirl again and repeat the tasting process, including the chew.

Remember to take some notes as you go along.  After a 10 minute tasting with and without water, it’s very easy to forget the first scents and tastes.  Add some comments to your notes about the time, date and the environment that you tasted in.  Warm room versus cold room.  Warm bourbon versus cold bourbon.  Smokey atmospheres can create a different experience to one without smoke.  All of these notes will be a useful reference point in future.

Get In Touch

While I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, I am happy to share my thoughts, opinions, views and reviews on most bourbon related questions.  Pop the QR code below and get in touch on WeChat.  I”m also on Linked In and you can CLICK HERE  to view the original article and connect to me.

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