Bourbon is often seen as the poor man’s alternative to Scotch whisky, but Phil Huff explains why this shouldn’t be the case.
There’s been whisky coming out of Scotland since the late 15th century. The name is even an anglicised version of the Gaelic word uisce, which roughly translates to simply water. There’s an elegant simplicity to its history.
The same can’t be said of bourbon. There are theories that it’s named after Bourbon County in Kentucky, a county itself named after the French House of Bourbon as a mark of thanks for the assistance of Louis XVI during the American Revolution. The drink, however, predates any written references to Bourbon County by a few decades, which casts doubt on the story and, thanks to successive fires in the county seat of Paris, few records of the era remain.
Bourbon Street in New Orleans could hold clues to the origins of the whiskey. The Tarascon brothers relocated to Louisiana from Cognac, France, keen to sell to the alcohol-loving, French-speaking locals. Cognac was rare and expensive, so they aged Kentucky whiskey in charred barrels, adjusting the flavour to meet local demands. Drinkers started asking for “that Bourbon Street whiskey” and the name stuck, so the story goes.
The American’s don’t really care who came up with the name, or where it came from, just so long as you enjoy the drink. They’re not precious about it either, encouraging you to drink it straight, with water, or mixed with liqueurs to create elaborate cocktails. Fancy it with a cherry floating on top and some orange slices on the rim? They’re good with that. It’s a drink for every person and every occasion, but it’s not the poor man’s Scotch.
The rules on what makes a bourbon a bourbon are strict, with the most important part being that they must be 51% corn, giving bourbon a sweeter flavour than other whiskey alternatives. Rye, wheat and barley can be mixed in at different quantities to adjust the flavour, but bourbon is always mostly corn. Those flavours are natural too, with no colouring or flavours added to the mix: this is why Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon but a Tennessee whiskey, as it’s filtered slowly through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal.
It’s also got to be matured in new, charred oak barrels, which means you won’t find sherry-cask bourbons, or other flavour alternatives, leaving many to wonder how bourbon gets its flavour. There’s a reason most distilleries have ended up around Kentucky, and that’s because of the extreme temperature changes. The barrels, stored on their sides in racks to allow air to flow around them, are exposed to blisteringly hot days and chilly nights, forcing the casks to expand and contract, where the charred wood does most of its magic.
Those temperature extremes create a reaction that ages the bourbon rapidly, meaning it can hit the shelves in as little as two years, but many are kept in warehouses for longer. It’s rare to see a bourbon older than eight years, though.
Perhaps that’s the key to the acceptability of drinking bourbon how you want to drink it, with no hint of snobbery; you’d be unlikely to crack open a bottle of Macallan 12-Year-Old Double Cask and mix it with Coke, but nobody would blink if you did that with a bottle of Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond.
Best Way to Get Your Bourbon On?
If you’ve never delved too deep into bourbon beyond a Jack Daniels (and don’t forget, that is not bourbon…) then there’s a world of whiskey to explore that’s a match for anything the Scots can produce.
As a gateway to bourbon, keep things simple. A bottle of Buffalo Trace is the perfect, low-cost route to enjoying a proper American whiskey. As well suited to mixing into a cocktail as it is drinking on the rocks, it’s a great all-rounder. There’s a lot of caramel to the flavour, and some sweet nutmeg, which makes it more palatable for a first-time foray. At less than £25 a bottle, it won’t break the bank if you decide it’s not for you.
Evan Williams isn’t a well-known brand over here, but Waitrose will sell you a bottle of Black Label for less than £40. Aged for roughly five and a half years, it’s got a well-rounded flavour with brown sugar and that nutmeg again, but with a strong hint of vanilla running through it. It’s worth hunting a bottle down if you like to drink your whiskey neat.
Those after a good cocktail base could do worse than a bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label. The high rye content adds extra spiciness that counters the usual sweetness, allowing your cocktail mixers to pick up the slack. There are some strong cinnamon flavours when you’re drinking it neat, but mix it into a cocktail and it comes alive, adding a strong and slightly earthy background to whatever the mixer. Four Roses isn’t difficult to get hold of in the UK, but the Yellow Label bottle is rarer. Happily, Amazon will sell you a bottle for less than £30.
If you fancy something more local, rather surprisingly Adnams can help out with a rye whiskey. It can’t be called a bourbon, but it’s one in all but name, and makes for a stunningly good base for the classic Old Fashioned cocktail. There’s vanilla, raisins and peppercorns in the mix somewhere, thanks to being aged for five years in French oak barrels. Direct from the distillery, it’s £40 a bottle.
Bourbon is exceptionally good value, as the manufacturers don’t have the expense of storing barrels for 25 years. So, even the best bourbon is unlikely to cost more than £50 a bottle, but there are a handful out there that command a more significant premium.
The Whisky Exchange has the most expensive bottle of bourbon in stock. Distilled in 1954 and before being bottled in 1962, a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Very Old will set you back £4,000. Probably best not to mix that one with Coke.
More affordable is the William Larue Weller 128.2 Proof from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Named in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2019 as the finest whisky in the world, it’s proof that bourbon has what it takes to take on the Scots. Unfortunately, it’s sold out, but bottles are occasionally traded, and Buffalo Trace will alert you when new bottles are produced if you register.
Enjoy bourbon as you wish, but do make time to try the classic bourbon cocktail. Made famous most recently by the Mad Men television series, the Old Fashioned is having something of a renaissance, but it’s never been out of style. Order one at a good bar and you’ll be waiting ten minutes as, despite its apparent simplicity, there’s an awful lot of hanging around as ice is melted and sugar dissolves. We don’t have time for that at home, so follow this simple recipe for a great Old Fashioned you can make and drink straight away.
Fill a mixing glass with ice and add a large measure of your favourite bourbon – preferably one high in rye. Add 10ml of sugar syrup (you can make your own, or pour a small amount from a supermarket-bought bottle) and two or three dashes of Angostura Bitters. Mix this well for 30 seconds, and then strain over fresh ice into a double Old Fashioned or lowball tumbler. Twist some orange peel to express the fragrant oils into the drink, add it as a garnish, and serve straight away. Traditionalists will be appalled at the shortcuts, but you’ll have a drink in your hand while they’re still seething.