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The A-Z of Bourbon

GEAR | November 1999

Bourbon. Classic Kentucky whiskey. Its the drink so many of us ordered on our 21st birthdays. Like cowboys in the westerns, we sauntered up to the bar, narrowed our eyes and said, "Whiskey. And make it a double." Whether its toasted in mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, sipped on porches throughout the South or ordered straight in the hipster whiskey bars of New York City, bourbon has always been a whiskey both for the refined and for the working class. When sipped with a cube of ice or a splash of water, itll glide down the gullet smooth as silk with hints of vanilla and oak. Gulped neat, itll make your hair stand on end. Either way, itll leave just a trace of wood and leather in the back of your throat, the way only bourbon can.

Technically, bourbon straight whiskey made in the United States (close to 90 percent comes from Kentucky). To be legally considered bourbon, the whiskey must be processed in the following way: It must come from fermented mash or grain, composed composed of at least 51 percent, but less than 80 percent corn; it must be blended with either rye, wheat or barley, and it must be aged in new, charred, white oak barrels for a minimum of two years; and it cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof (80 percent) alcohol  only water can be used to reduce the alcohol level.

When discerning between bourbons, Bill Samuels, Jr., president of Makers Mark and an industry veteran, says its important to be wary of marketing schemes. "The labels single barrel and small batch have nothing to do with taste," he says. "Its companies playing off single malt scotch." But, overall, Samuels is optimistic about the state of the spirit. "There is no bourbon you have to apologize for today. When I came into the industry, you had to hold your nose to drink most of them."

Jack Daniels-You know the taste: a little sweet, always warm on the tongue, strong on the throat and finishes with just a hint of pepper. Take it any way you like it. Straight, itll make you sit up and take notice. I find its best to add a little ice and sip slowly.

Knob Creek-This small-batch nine-year-old, 100 proof bourbon from Jim Beam is sweet but powerful. Its full of almonds, vanilla and blackberries, giving the aftertaste a spicy warm tingle.

Jim Beam-The four-year-old, 80 proof white label is still the most popular bourbon on the market. Its a classic. One minute it makes you want to bark like a dog, and the very next it calms the nerves like a hot steaming bath.

Woodford Reserve- Kentuckys only bourbon mode in copper vessels (imported from Scotland) and aimed at the premium market. At 90 proof, with vanilla and toffee notes, its best taken neat for a long, smooth after-dinner drink.

Bookers- Eight years old, 80 proof. A bit spicy because of the high rye content. I found it harsh even on the rocks. People who love "Old Grand-Dad" will like this bourbon, especially since its named after him. Recommended mixer: with ginger ale.

Makers Mark- This 90 proof small batch bourbon (made from mixing several straight whiskeys that have matured into a specific style from a few select barrels) is the market leader in Kentucky and is now a best seller in whiskey bars across the country. The yeast used in its sour mash dates back to before prohibition, making it the oldest bourbon in the world. Instead of rye, its a wheat blend, making it more smooth and mild  theres a hint of vanilla, oak, honey and dark berries. Drop a cube of ice in a shot glass and take your time sipping. Of interest: Taylor Samuels, one of the first generation of Makers Mark whiskeymen, was related to both Daniel Boone and Jesse James.

Blantons- Back in 1984, this 93 proof was the first single barrel to hit the market. To some, the single and small batch bourbons are premium whiskeys, comparable to single malt scotch. To others, especially die-hard bourbon folks who feel bourbon is the same now as it was 50 years ago, its all just a clever marketing trick. That aside, Blantons is excellent. It has a slightly red color from the barrel with traces of vanilla, cinnamon and dark berries. Its too good to mix. Have it with ice or neat.

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