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Bourbon: An American story

The saga of Bourbon is full of contradictions, myths and untruths. When the Thirteen Colonies rebelled in the late 1700s, rum was the drink of choice. But the abundant native corn crop soon got colonists brewing up corn liquor, perhaps the precursor to Bourbon. Some claim that Bourbon as we now know it was invented in the 1780s by a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig (a respected brand still bears his name today.) Besides passing an act declaring Bourbon to be “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964...

The saga of Bourbon is full of contradictions, myths and untruths. When the Thirteen Colonies rebelled in the late 1700s, rum was the drink of choice. But the abundant native corn crop soon got colonists brewing up corn liquor, perhaps the precursor to Bourbon. Some claim that Bourbon as we now know it was invented in the 1780s by a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig (a respected brand still bears his name today.)

Besides passing an act declaring Bourbon to be “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964, the federal government also defines exactly how Bourbon must be made: The fermenting grain mash has to contain a minimum of 51 percent corn (it’s usually closer to 70 percent in practice); the remainder is made up of rye, wheat and malted barley.

Federal regs. also specify that to be called Bourbon, the whiskey must be distilled to 160 proof and aged for a minimum of two years (master distillers often age it four to 12 years) in charred American white oak barrels. Barrel aging gives the whiskey its characteristic golden color. From the barrel, Bourbon is adjusted with water to bottling strength of 80-100 proof. (Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the U.S., but 90 percent of it is made in Kentucky.)

Local limestone water adds to Bourbon’s uniqueness. And most distillers employ a sour mash method, similar to sourdough bread starter, where a bit of the previous batch is saved and added for flavor. Differences between brands come from the mix of other grains in the mash, the strain of yeasts used and the way barrels are stored.

Brands you’ll comes across most often include Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Ancient Age, Bulleit, Evan Williams, Old Grandad, Old Crow, Old Forester and Kentucky Gentleman. Some drinkers mistakenly refer to Jack Daniels as a Bourbon but it’s actually a Tennessee Whiskey.


Terms to Know

The current bar trend is for straight sipping top-shelf whiskeys with more character—and usually more alcohol—than the regular pour. Call them “single barrel,” “small batch,” “vintage” or “cask strength,” they are the best of Bourbon.

Single barrel refers to the fact that some locations in the aging facility produce better whiskey than others—these are singled out and bottled separately.

Small batch also takes advantage of barrel differences and blends a few of the best into a special selection.

Cask strength is a full-flavored whiskey bottled without the addition of water.

Vintage is Bourbon that’s dated and made from just one exemplary year.


Bourbon Buyers Guide

How do you build a better Bourbon list? “You’ve got to consider the crowd you’re going after and what will play for your customers,” says Jason Brauner, owner of Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, Kentucky.

What’s selling these days is the top-shelf products. Single barrel, small batch, vintage-dated, cask strength—those are the buzzwords among aficionados, and that’s the stuff you need in order to attract them.

Purveyors were very helpful, says Brauner, in building his whiskey list, with pours ranging from $5 for Ancient Age and Early Times up to $75 a glass of Distiller’s Masterpiece. He recommends a core of some 30 to 50 labels, although his restaurant boasts some 130 Bourbons. Brauner relies on several liquor distributors for variety.

Depending upon local regs, whiskey is generally available in 750-ml, 1-liter and 1.5-liter bottles. You might be
able to finagle case discounts on well brands, but a bottle or two of some rare Bourbon is bound to be pricey.

However, many of the big distillers have wide whiskey portfolios, so you can one-stop shop without sacrificing variety. Of course, premiums are more expensive, so don’t think in terms of pour-cost percentages, but rather in dollar profits. Keep an eye on bottles that take more than 6 to 9 months to empty—replace them with a more popular pour. But specialized products will sit on your back bar unless you push them.

Flights of three whiskies, grouped to allow comparisons, are important tools to introduce customers to new labels, says Brauner, who offers eight flights, from $10 to $20. Hand-selling is important, and the staff is whiskey-savvy. “We try to persuade customers to try something beyond their regular call,” says Brauner.


Classic Cocktail Ingredients

Bourbon & Branch: Branch water, the same limestone spring water used to make Bourbon, is the simple, traditional accompaniment; substitute high-quality mineral water

Old Fashioned: Simple sugar, Angostura bitters

Mint Julep: Castor sugar, fresh mint, bitters; a silver or pewter cup is traditional

Whiskey Sour: Lemon juice, superfine bar sugar, maraschino cherry for garnish

Manhattan: Vermouth, Angostura bitters, maraschino cherry and lemon twist for garnishes

Hot Toddy: Lemon juice, hot water, cloves, lemon slice for garnish

Highball: Tonic water and a lemon/lime twist

Bourbonade: Fresh lemonade, peach juice, mint leaves

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