No spirit is as woven into the American fabric as richly as bourbon. From its deep frontier roots – it was first produced by corn farmers – to the success of today’s artisan producers, it’s clear that bourbon is beloved, and not just at home. Today, a growing global audience is eager to uncap this great American heritage.
Inside Every Bottle
First, a quick primer on what defines a bourbon. By law, it must be made with at least 51% corn, though traditional bourbon typically rings in at 70%. Rye, wheat and/or malted barley of varying amounts then round out the flavour, depending on the distiller’s preferences. Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels, which can only be used once, and it has to be aged two years to be considered a straight bourbon. Though it can be made anywhere in the United States, the home of bourbon is Kentucky, where a majority of the production remains.
Small Gets Big
With clear spirits like vodka experiencing a boom in the 1980s, bourbon took a bit of a back seat in North America, although interest from Japan and Europe kept the beacon burning. Booker Noe of the Jim Beam distillery then launched Booker’s and the spirit underwent a period of rediscovery. The hook? Noe produced straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered whiskey – it was a throwback to bourbon’s earliest incarnations. This small-batch revolution quickly took hold as other names soon appeared on the shelves, notably the Small Batch Collection, which included Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek.
Into the Mix
The upsurge in cocktail culture brought bourbon to an even wider audience. Those signature caramel and vanilla flavours that are drawn from charred oak barrels impart sweet, toasty flavours that give depth to any mixed drink. Classics like the Mint Julep, Old Fashioned and Manhattan never go out of style, but with such a range of styles now available, the possibilities of mixing are inspired and endless.
What’s next in bourbon’s resurgence? Count on expanding variety, such as single-barrel bourbons, which draw whiskey from one barrel rather than a blend from many, so there are nuances to every release. High-rye bourbons offer more of a spicy bite, while other whiskies emphasize different grain counts and aging methods to highlight textures and flavours. Keep an eye out, too, for non-GMO corn-based bourbons for those who appreciate the efforts of distillers that uphold shared values. It appears bourbon will continue to find its way into the hearts and glasses of admirers the world over. Need some inspiration to continue your own journey down the bourbon trail? Start here:
Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon
The spicy, sweet smoothness eases out over a long finish, as touches of plum and spice gradually build on the palate. Certain to raise a few voices over the excellent price, too.
A distillery that continues to produce coveted whiskies, the 1783 proposes classic vanilla, toffee and sweet corn tones with a hint of toasted coconut for good measure. Medium bodied, the finish holds for an extended stay.
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