Smooth and Sweet

Louise Crane unlocks the secrets of Kentucky’s pride and joy: bourbon


There are two types of people in this world; those who, on hearing the word ‘bourbon’, think of a deliciously smooth, sweet, and warming spirit, and those who think of a chocolate biscuit. (There is a third type, who recall the French Bourbon dynasty after which both are named, but never mind them.) Bourbon is even more American than apple pie, since America is, legally-speaking, the only place it can be made. It’s hugely popular around the world, and not just mixed with cola or soda. Today’s bourbon is made for sipping, mixing, sloshing on the rocks or just sitting out on the porch. Because all Americans have porches.

Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century, using recipes brought over by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland. Where these use barley in the main, and sometimes wheat, for the mash, bourbon makes use of the corn that grows more plentifully in the American South. The corn is fermented, distilled twice (or thrice, as in the case of Woodford Reserve) and matured in virgin oak barrels, a key difference between bourbon and its forebears. And unlike Scotch and Irish whiskies, bourbons don’t need to be aged for more than three years unless it’s labelled as ‘straight’ bourbon, which has to spend at least two years in the barrel.

“Virgin oak barrels impart far more flavour into the spirit than used barrels, particularly sweet notes like vanilla, caramel and honey, and spicy, peppery notes,” says Michael Vachon of Maverick Drinks, 2016 IWSC Spirits Distributor of the Year and importer of several bourbon brands. The raw wood is full of flavours and colours that leach into the 62.5% spirit that’s poured into them, and it’s usually charred to form a richly reactive layer of charcoal that soaks up any lingering nasty compounds.

This technique is also used for flavour, says Michael: “A heavily charred barrel will, perhaps unsurprisingly, impart smoky flavours. It can only be used once in the bourbon industry, after which it is sold on to Scotch whisky producers, who are allowed to mature their spirit in ‘re-fill’ barrels. Bourbon is still seen by many as having less heritage than Scotch, but the two industries share more in common than people know.”

Scotch snobs may also level accusations along the lines that bourbon doesn’t have the variation of the single malt, because there is so little geographic variation between bourbon distilleries. 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky, and since bourbon’s grain is never dried with peat, the only inputs from the local environment are water and grain.

But whereas single malt has to be made 100% from malted barley, bourbon only needs to be 51% corn. Suddenly there’s one thing bourbon has that Scotch does not: a mash bill.

Most bourbons are 75% corn, which is called the engine, because it yields the most alcohol; 5-15% malted barley, the workhorse, because it provides the enzymes that break down the starch; and 10-20% ‘flavouring grain’, usually rye or wheat, but sometimes, as in the case of Rock Town’s limited Flavor Grain Series bottling, sorghum.

In addition, nearly all bourbons use a sour mash process. In sour mashing, a portion of material from a previous batch is used to inoculate the current batch, kick-starting fermentation in much the same way as a starter is used to make sourdough. The reason for this is that a sour mash produces acid as a by-product, and a lower pH protects the mash from bacterial infection that may impact on the flavour of the final whiskey.

Michael has seen a big upturn in the UK bourbon scene over the past five years. “The interest in bourbon has come on leaps and bounds. Did you know there’s a British Bourbon Society with over 1000 members?” Our fascination with all things American is evidenced by the number of Five Guys restaurants opening up, not to mention the lesser-known Shake Shack and Smashburger. “Thanks to craft beer, and the popularity of the Boilermaker (aka beer and a shot), bourbon is now seen in the casual dining area,” says Michael.

A thriving interest in the more classic cocktails has helped the bourbon’s popularity too, he explains: “The Old Fashioned, a simple cocktail made by mixing bourbon with bitters and a sugar cube muddled together, is a great drink to get people trying, and inevitably liking, bourbon.”

There’s genuinely something personal about every batch that’s produced

The success of Mad Men probably did no harm, either.

For the proverbial Don Drapers among you, there’s not just a choice of Jim Beam or Knob Creek, but numerous smaller distilleries selling their wares, including older, family-owned outfits like Heaven Hill, and newcomers Watershed Distillery, founded in 2010. Michael again: “Outside of the mainstream brands, bourbons are made in significantly smaller batches with longer fermentation times, and careful distillation. These factors alone mean there’s bound to be more complexity to these whiskies, but it also means there’s genuinely something personal about every batch that’s produced.”

At The Whisky Exchange in Covent Garden, manager Alex Huskinson stocks the shelves with more than 100 different bourbons. “Since I started working in whisky retail ten years ago, the bourbon market has changed considerably. The change is not only in the more unusual brands taking over from the usual suspects, as the collectible end of the market has also grown considerably.

"The Buffalo Trace antique collection, a selection of very small batch bourbons released each autumn, is hugely popular and demand always outstrips supply. Then there are The Old Rip Van Winkle whiskies, which are sought after because of their prestigious reputation and can command huge prices at auction.”

Other brands to look out for are Hudson from Tuthilltown Distillery in New York, and Mississippi River Distilling Company from Iowa proving that it’s not just Kentucky that makes good bourbon.

Grain-to-glass producer F.E.W Spirits is another outsider, with their distillery just outside of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. This year it released something a little different. Whereas most mainstream bourbons blend together many of a distillery’s different casks with water to dilute it down to something the average palate can handle (usually 40%, sometimes 46%), F.E.W has just released a single barrel bottling.

“The British Bourbon Society suggested to F.E.W the idea of releasing their own bottling of bourbon,” explains Michael Vachon, “and F.E.W were all too happy to oblige them with the whisky.” The result is a very limited 100 bottles of pure bourbon, from a single barrel and no water, clocking in at a whopping 64.38% abv. “The higher strength really allows complex flavours to shine,” says Michael. Blanton’s Gold and Four Roses Single Barrel also offer the customer a snapshot into the output of a bourbon distillery at a particular time and place.

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