You would think that the words ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ would be pretty self-explanatory right? It’s obviously just Whiskey made in Tennessee… maybe it’s not quite so simple. I was recently asked to present a seminar on American Whiskey at Imbibe Live to a crowd of bartenders and industry experts. It’s a subject I know fairly well from my day job as Brand Ambassador for Four Roses Bourbon, (and a keen imbiber of all types of American Whiskies), so I was confident in terms of subject matter. I thought the research would be brief and that I pretty much knew the story I wanted to tell about how American Whiskey styles have changed over the years, but information that I have discovered since has made me think that maybe I was just a little too cocky!
For the Imbibe seminar I drafted in the help of fellow alcohol geek Stuart Hudson, and between us we came up with the order in which we would tell the whiskey story, deciding to start with Rye Whiskey, as in all likelihood rye would have been the earliest base ingredient for making Whiskey in the US. We thought we’d follow up with Corn Whiskies and moonshines, as they most likely emerged once colonists moved south into the warmer southern states, where corn grows more plentifully; then on to Bourbon as it’s something of a hybrid of Corn and Rye Whiskies. Lastly we wanted to talk about Tennessee Whiskey and what makes it different from Bourbon… and that’s where we ran into a small problem.
It has been a strange couple of weeks in the bourbon industry, as first Maker’s Mark announced that they were lowering the abv of their product from 45% to 42%, then a week later announcing that they weren’t going to change their abv after all. The reversal of their decision came after a frankly astonishing outcry from bourbon drinkers, all of whom seemed to feel disappointed at the thought of any change being made to this much loved product. The amount of press that this generated, as well as the buzz on facebook and twitter, highlighted the passion that people often feel about the brands they choose to drink.
I’ll admit that I was tempted to write an article straight away, not to jump on the bandwagon, but to put across both sides of the story. Sometimes brands feel that they have no choice but to change their products, to react to demand or even profitability, and sometimes a change does no harm at all. That being said, any changes to a brand, be it the packaging, the price, the recipe or the abv, can have an adverse effect. I decided to hold off on writing my article until emotions had calmed a little. Unfortunately by the time it was written, Maker’s had reversed their decision, but I still think this is a discussion worth having, so below you’ll find some of my thoughts on the American Whiskey brands that have changed their recipes over the last few years and the effect it can have.
Firstly may I apologise for the length of time between updates, but as it has been ‘Bourbon Heritage Month’ I felt I should dedicate myself to promoting this fine spirit in various countries across Europe! Last month I shared with you a few things that everyone should know about Bourbon, so it seems only right to share some of the Bourbons I enjoy drinking. To be honest, for me narrowing it down to just 11 has been challenging as there are over 80 Bourbons in the b&t drinking room at the moment. Of those 80, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a bottle that hasn’t been opened, and most of them get enjoyed on a regular basis.
In tackling this task, I considered breaking them up into different styles to make sure that Bourbons with high rye, corn or wheat recipes were well represented, but somehow that didn’t balance out, as I tend to be a little biased towards rye heavy Bourbons. Then I tried breaking them down by distillery, but there are just too many distilleries! Doing it by price seemed like a reasonable course, but once again I didn’t find the balance I was looking for, so instead I have done something a little less formulaic. Below you will simply find a selection of Bourbons that I like, with a description, and a cocktail for each. There is everything from super premium to entry level Bourbon, some made with wheat some with rye. There are lots of Kentucky Bourbons, but also a few from newer distilleries in other parts of the US. The main thing that they all have in common is that they’re tasty examples of this fine and versatile spirit.
Over in the US it’s ‘National Bourbon Heritage Month’ which is a celebration of Bourbon as America’s native spirit, so it seems only right that I dedicate a bit of time to my favourite spirit. Bourbon has an amazing history, and given its rising popularity a very bright future; yet as a category it is still often misunderstood. Back in March and April I wrote about rum, posting a blog titled ‘9 things you should know about rum’ and then following it up with ‘9 rums you should be drinking’ and as they both proved incredibly popular I thought I’d follow a similar format for Bourbon (although apparently I have 11 things to say on this subject!).
I hope that my thoughts below will inspire you to explore this amazing spirit category and truly get into the swing of Bourbon Appreciation Month. There are so many wonderful products available today, especially with smaller producers popping up at an astonishing rate, that hopefully with a bit of understanding and perhaps a few pointers towards some of my favourites, you’ll find something new to enjoy.
I read an interesting article the other day on the Los Angeles Times website, about how clear spirits are the trend in Southern California at the moment. The article talks about ‘light drinks for sunny days, meant to refresh’ and goes on to say that ‘clear spirits often get the job done better than the dark stuff’. While I totally agree with much of what the article says, especially about treating these clear spirits with a delicate touch to stop them from being overpowered by other ingredients, it also got me thinking about how we often unfairly compartmentalise spirits to be for a certain occasion or time of year. So below are a few thoughts I have about not forgetting ‘the dark stuff’ when it comes to summer drinking.
I should start by saying that I love white Rum, Gin, blanco Tequila, and am even slowly growing fonder of Vodka. But having said that I’m often drawn to the complexities of dark spirits as a base for cocktails as well as for sipping neat. When the sun is shining I’ll admit that a Daiquiri, Margarita or Caipirinha are great thirst quenchers, or that a refreshing Collins can be hard to beat. But likewise there are some pretty amazing dark spirit drinks that fulfil the same role for me. A Mai Tai, Mint Julep or even a Whiskey Sour are pretty remarkable summertime cocktails.
There’s a lot of colourful, descriptive and evocative language used when describing spirits, and while the imagery called to mind can make a spirit sound inviting, the descriptions themselves can sometimes be a bit over-the-top. Generally the language used to describe a spirits aroma, flavour and mouth-feel isn’t quite as elaborate as with wine tasting (can you really smell the fresh dew on a dandelion petal in the morning sunlight?) but to someone who’s new to smelling and tasting spirits, it can still be intimidating.
To a lot of people bourbon smells like whiskey, gin smells a bit piney and vodka smells like alcohol, so when they read that they should be smelling dried apricot, pencil shavings and vanilla fudge, they wonder if they're doing something wrong. So I thought I’d take a look at the language we use to describe the effect alcohol has on our senses and the way we approach identifying the characteristics of different spirits. Take this as a beginners guide to the language of tasting spirits, if you will.
Usually the b&t blog is written by Dan, but today I’m pushing him to one side and taking my turn in the spotlight. The reason for this is simple; we wanted to write about Four Roses but as many of you will know Dan works for the brand as an ambassador, and so I felt that he might be biased on this particular subject! We try never to blur the line between our personal writing and the brand that Dan works for, but when we found out the Master Distiller from Four Roses was coming to the Uk and bringing a new bourbon with him, we knew we had to share it with you.
I am a big fan of bourbon; some I love simply because they’re easily enjoyed and are sympathetic to my female palate, no matter the serve. Others because their aroma transports me back to precise moment in time; a hot, sweet rick house in Kentucky, a September evening with wood smoke and blankets. Sometimes a bourbon manages both and in fact this week I tasted a limited edition that I knew I would like, but also (rather unexpectedly) instantly reminded me of the first time that I ever tried a whiskey straight out of the barrel.
When I wrote recently about liqueurs and the different rules governing how they’re made, I had a lot of people telling me how useful it was to see those guidelines spelled out. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding spirits and their differing rules, so I thought I’d have a go at putting down on paper the regulations for most of the major spirit categories. When we talked about this over a rum or two at b&t HQ, it seemed like a great idea, but then I started the research…
The problem I ran into right away was that every country seems to have their own set of regulations defining each type of spirit, which means to arrive at one definitive list of rules is nearly impossible. However, after a little research I’ve managed to compile some guidelines for each spirit category, and have written more straightforward interpretations for some of the confusing legal definitions that make up the ‘rules’. So if you’ve ever wondered what makes some gins ‘London Dry’ or have queried the difference between bourbon and scotch, here’s my attempt at unraveling some of those mysteries that make up the defining rules of spirit production. You might want to fix yourself a cocktail as this is one of the longer blogs I've written… and this is just part one!