Editor’s note: John DeBari is author of “Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Delicious Cocktails Regardless,” CEO and founder of zero-proof beverage company Proto, and co-founder and chair of the board of the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. This note is adapted from his Original Through The Food Network, which, like CNN, is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.
(CNN) — Whiskey is one of the broadest and most complex categories, and bourbon is one of the most popular. Here’s a quick guide that reveals a few secrets to help you explore this fascinating American sensation.
What is Bourbon? And how is it made?
Legally, bourbon must be made in the United States from a mixture called grains or “mash” that contains at least 51% corn and the rest rye, wheat, and malted barley.
It must be aged in new charred oak containers, usually barrels. The key ingredients are that it is mostly produced from corn in the US and aged in charred new oak containers. It’s common to find bourbons produced in Kentucky, but that’s more a matter of tradition than legal requirement. Bourbon is produced all over the country from Hawaii to Maine.
Generally, the flavors found in bourbon are bready, somewhat sweet, and with prominent notes of caramel, vanilla, and spice. They are most effective in cocktails, perhaps the most versatile of dark spirits, with rum.
Bourbon producers must adhere to a rule that their recipe must be 51% corn, but they can play pretty freely with the rest of the grains. Most include a significant percentage of rye, which gives the drink a grassy green color, but others include good portions of wheat, which gives it a smooth smoothness, creating a more approachable feel. (Maker’s Mark is a notable example of wheat-flavored bourbon.)
Bourbons vary depending on where they are aged and for how long. Those produced in Kentucky experience a drastic change in climate between summer and winter, ensuring that wood and whiskey really have a chance to blend. Barrel aging does several things: First, the charred wood of the charred oak acts as a filter (think activated charcoal) that draws out undesirable elements from the liquor. Second, toasted wood infuses the raw drink with aromas of wood grain, caramel, vanilla, and sometimes coconut. Finally, because the barrel is airtight, controlled oxidation helps mature and mellow some of the drink’s harsher notes.
Best Overall: Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
In whiskey jargon, “single cask” refers to a single cask that has been bottled from a specific cask selected by the distiller for its exceptional quality. This is in contrast to most whiskies, where multiple casks are combined to create a homogenous and consistent product. Four Roses is an iconic Kentucky producer, and while this bottle is a bit pricey, it works well in any setting.
Drink straight: Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon
Bourbon purists may scoff at my choice of bourbon made in upstate New York, but this whiskey is unique and delicious. First, it is aged using the “solera” method, commonly used by sherry producers, where freshly made liquid is added to the aged to create a final product that is a mixture of very old and relatively new whisky. This creates a complexity that is enhanced by the time it spends in these Bourbon Oloroso Sherry casks, giving it a fruity and spicy character.
Best for Whiskey Sour: Wild Turkey 101
Generally, spirits are bottled at 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). For whiskey, that percentage is not uncommon (closer to 45-50% ABV). Master Distiller Jimmy Russell has worked at Wild Turkey for over 50 years, and his son joined as Master Distiller in 2015. 50.5% ABV bourbon, equal to 101 proof, mixed with lemon juice and egg whites is strong enough. And sugary, spicy citrus notes continue to shine through in a classic whiskey sour recipe.
Best for a Manhattan: Breckenridge Bourbon
This Colorado distillery claims to be the highest distillery in the world at 3,000 meters above sea level. As a former barista, my default alcohol for a Manhattan is definitely rye whiskey, which has a spicier and stronger touch than its smoother, sweeter cousin, bourbon. However, this bottle is made with a recipe of 40% rye (most producers use less than half in their blend). If you’re one of those people who likes to brew Manhattans with bourbon, this allows you to have the best of both worlds.
Best for Old Fashioned: Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Bourbon
Baptist minister Elijah Craig is said to have “discovered” bourbon in charred oak barrels “accidentally” before storing his whiskey. Whatever the truth of this statement, this bourbon is an excellent choice in every respect, and its high alcohol content of 47% gives it enough strength to withstand the dilution that occurs when making an Old Fashioned.
Best value for money: Old Grandfather
While not much cheaper than the previously mentioned Wild Turkey 101, Old Grand Dot has a reputation for being “lower end,” and I’m not entirely sure why. I first tried a cocktail I created at Please Don’t Tell, a cocktail bar in New York, and it holds a special place in my heart. It wouldn’t be my first drink choice, but this bottle is great for many shots: highballs, juleps, and old friends, to name a few.
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