United taste of America: Bourbon is back and better than ever
by Jonathan Ray
Bourbon is back, as smooth and soft as ever, says Jonathan Ray
For years, it’s gin that has dominated the back bar of many a fine establishment. Ask any mixologist worth their salt what their spirit of choice is, however, and the answer is unanimous: bourbon. It’s beautiful, bewitching and beguiling – and America’s gift to the world. Indeed, only last night I enjoyed a scrumptious Seelbach cocktail made with Four Roses bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s bitters and Laurent-Perrier champagne.
The cocktail is named after the Seelbach Hilton, of course, a magnificent old pile in Louisville, Kentucky, famous for having been one of Al Capone’s old haunts. I’ve stayed there many times and have never tired of browsing the hundreds of bourbons on offer in the Old Seelbach Bar.
To be called bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the US, from a minimum of 51 per cent corn spirit, with no addition of either colour or flavour. Only charred, new oak barrels may be used in its maturation.
In practice, almost all bourbon comes from Kentucky. Before Prohibition, which banned alcohol in the US from 1920 to 1933, there were 2,000 distilleries in the Bluegrass State. Ten years ago, there were just nine. Happily, even though a third of the state is still “dry” (including, bizarrely, Bourbon County, which gave the whiskey its name), things are resolutely on the up and the whiskey is enjoying unprecedented export sales.
Kentucky has hot, intense summers and bitingly cold winters, the extremes of which force the whiskey to soak in and out of the charred staves of the barrel, picking up colour and flavour as it does so. Thanks to the use of virgin oak barrels, bourbon is smoother and softer than most other whiskies and better for mixing. Indeed, unlike Scotch, which tends to be consumed straight, with soda or on the rocks, 90 per cent of bourbon is mixed with coke (such a shame!) or used as a base for a cocktail such as a Manhattan, mint julep, old-fashioned, Sazerac or whiskey sour.
I reckon they deserve to be savoured more on their own, though. In fact, I’m sipping some Maker’s Mark 46 as I write and the more I sip, the more I agree with myself…
Four Roses small batch bourbon
One of the most popular bourbons of all – with good reason. It’s famously smooth, spicy, toasty, honeyed, fruity and full of toffee and vanilla. £31, thewhiskyexchange.com
Elijah Craig small batch bourbon
Launched in 2016 and produced by Heaven Hill Distillery, Elijah Craig small batch is comprised of whiskeys between eight and 12 years old and is extremely fine, being soft, mellow, sweet and slightly smoky. £39, thewhiskyexchange.com
Maker’s 46 Kentucky bourbon whisky
The regular Maker’s Mark is a famously approachable bourbon and even though this is bigger, bolder, richer and more complex, it is ridiculously enjoyable and (despite higher alcohol) similarly easy-going. £41, masterofmalt.com
Stagg Jr Kentucky straight bourbon
Stagg Jr is one of many fine whiskies made at Buffalo Trace Distillery. Bottled unfiltered, it has a whopping ABV of 65 per cent and is fabulously complex, with rich, dark chocolate notes, candied orange peel, raisins, toffee, vanilla and buckets of sweet spice. £79, houseofmalt.co.uk
Illustration by Adam Nickel