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.
I hope you’ll pick one or two that sound interesting and give them a try. I know some of my friends in the bourbon industry will feel left out because their products aren’t featured this time around, but rest assured I haven’t omitted you because I don’t like you, I’ve simply had to pick an interesting mixture for this update.
This is one of two Bourbons from Four Roses that I’ve included, and as far as I’m concerned this is the best value for money, entry level Bourbon on the market. The Yellow Label is also a great product for introducing ‘non bourbon drinkers’ to the category. It’s smooth, mellow and amazingly easy to drink. There’s a soft sweetness on the nose that comes along with a soft brioche aroma with hints of white fruit, like unripe pears or green apples. Four Roses is famous for its high rye content, which adds a dry slightly spicy finish that cuts through the sweetness, making it a well balance Whiskey that’s easy to sip just as it is, but can work equally as well in cocktails.
With such a mellow bourbon I wanted to keep the cocktail fairly simple so that the Bourbon would still shine through. So I turned to my friend Arianne Fielder for suggestions, as I know what a huge fan of Four Roses she is (she even has a Four Roses tattoo!) and she suggested this fantastic long drink, the Tom Sawyer, which is easy to make and delicious to drink.
If you’re ever in Atlanta Georgia, and you like Bourbon you’d be fool not to swing by Arianne’s bar Southern Art and Bourbon Bar, it’s a Mecca to all things Bourbon and Arianne will mix you drinks you’ll never forget!
60ml lemon juice (Meyer lemons if you can get them)
60ml simple syrup
6 dashes Fee Brothers cherry bitters
Soda water top
Pour the first four ingredients into a highball glass and add plenty of cubed ice. Stir and top with soda before garnishing with a cherry.
Jim Beam are best known for their white label product, but in my opinion paying a couple of pounds more for a bottle of the Jim Beam Black is a great investment. The Black label version of this Kentucky classic is aged for a minimum of six years, and the extra time spent in barrels compared to the white label has transformed it. There is strong caramel sweetness on the nose with dry wood notes and hints of spice coming through on the nose. On taking a sip you immediately find a lot of character and flavour, and there’s the expected almost maple sweetness, but balanced with spice and wood with hints of plum and cherry. The finish is medium in length, drying out nicely and finishing with hints of cereal and bread. This is a very traditional bourbon, with a hint of fire and spice, which fits with the stereotypical image of Bourbon.
The spice and dry wood notes in this great value spirit make it ideal for mixing, and playing with it in different drinks I found it works perfectly in a traditional Whiskey Sour. To make things more interesting though I decided to work with the cherry notes and spice notes, and created this refreshing cocktail, named after Strom, the bar in Copenhagen where I was working when I came up with it. It still has a sour element but with a refreshing twist that makes it perfect for a warm day.
ONE NIGHT IN STROM
50ml Jim Beam Black
20ml lemon juice
15ml Cherry Heering
2 dashes plum bitters
Ginger ale top
Add the first five ingredients to a highball glass and fill with cubed ice before topping with ginger ale and garnish it with a cherry and a lemon peel.
One of the most instantly recognisable bottles on any back bar, Maker’s Mark, with its red wax seal and square bottle, is probably the best known of the ‘wheated’ bourbons. As mentioned in my earlier post ’11 things you should know about Bourbon’, the use of wheat as the primary flavouring grain tends to result in a sweeter Whiskey, and that’s one of the things you can’t help but notice upon first sipping Maker’s Mark. This sweet, smooth bourbon is another great one for introducing people to American Whiskey, with its caramel, toasted almond and peach flavours.
There’s a well-rounded quality to Maker’s and while many hardened Whisk(e)y drinkers will say that Maker’s is too sweet, personally I think that this is the quality that gives it mass appeal. It also makes it great for cocktails, as it stands up beautifully to sour ingredients and can be used to draw out the sweeter notes in a drink. Below I’ve matched it with peach in a simple twist on the classic julep, and I hope you’ll agree it’s a winning combination!
MADE AND MINTED
60ml Maker’s Mark
10ml crème de peche
8 – 10 mint leaves
2 big sprigs of mint for garnish.
In a julep tin, gently bruise the mint leaves and crème de peche, before adding the bourbon and plenty of crushed ice. Churn thoroughly and top with more crushed ice before garnishing with a slice of peach and the mint sprigs.
Elijah Craig is another classic bourbon, this time coming out of the Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky. This is one of the more heavily aged Bourbons on my list, at a healthy 12 years old, this Whiskey has had plenty of hot and cold seasons to interact with the wood. Due to this longer than average aging, the wood notes come through strongly even on the nose, with maple sweetness, vanilla and dark berries in the background. The flavour is a little drier than the nose, with a hint of fire on the tongue and a pleasant spice coming through as the flavour grows. There is a pleasant bitterness like walnut skins, and the fruit notes are subtle but still present. Burnt orange, caramel and dry wood lingers on the finish, which is long and dry.
Obviously with all this character going on, this is a bourbon that could easily be enjoyed neat, or with just a splash of cold water. In fact I'm sure there are those who would say I'm crazy to use it in a cocktail, but with all that flavour I couldn’t resist mixing it in a drink that would still show off the Bourbon. So below find my walnut and chocolate twist on an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail. I hope I haven't offended too many of the die hard Bourbon oficinados, out there ; )
NUTS ABOUT THE OLD FASHIONED
50ml Elijah Craig 12 yo
10ml Mozart Dry Chocolate Spirit
10ml walnut liqueur
2 dashes Bitter Truth orange bitters
Add all ingredients into a rocks glass with plenty of cubed ice and stir until well chilled and properly diluted. Top with more ice if needed, and garnish with a small orange twist and some toasted walnuts on the side.
This is the modern classic of Bourbons, having only been launched in 1996, yet with a following and popularity that makes it feel as though it’s been around forever. Woodford Reserve has a healthy kick of rye (at 18% it is much higher than most), that gives it a lovely spice and heaps of character. This has long been a favourite of mine for Manhattans and Juleps, but today I was itching to try it with a few different flavour combinations.
The Bourbon itself has a hint of smoke, toasted almonds, honey and an almost metallic tang on the nose. It alludes to lots of flavour, which is exactly what it delivers. The honey sweetness founds on the nose comes first, then burnt orange, plum and roasted nuts. All of this is backed up by a dry wood note and plenty of black pepper and a touch of cinnamon, which merge into a delicious finish. At the end it dries out, leaving you ready for another sip almost as soon as you’ve put the glass down!
60ml fig infused Woodford Reserve
20ml lemon juice
10ml maple syrup
10ml crème de peche
5ml Yellow Chartreuse (float)
To make the fig infused Bourbon, simply muddle 8 – 10 ripe figs in a large mason jar and add a bottle of Woodford Reserve. Stir from time to time leaving it to infuse for about 6 hours. I usually just fine strain it back into a bottle, and store in the fridge.
Combine the first four ingredients in a highball glass and stir before adding plenty of cubed ice. Float 5ml of Yellow Chartreuse on top and then top off with soda water, before garnishing with a slice of fresh fig and a lemon twist.
This is an interesting one to throw into the mix, and a great example of an un-aged American Whiskey, which will give you a little insight into where some of the flavour of Bourbon comes from. As it hasn’t spent time in the barrel, there are none of the wood, vanilla and caramel notes of the other Bourbons mentioned here, in fact the dominant aroma comes from the grain.
FEW white Whiskey is creamy and rich on the nose, with buttered popcorn, brioche and even a hint of marshmallow aromas. There’s a sharpness that comes with a newly made spirit and a mineral edge that is surprisingly pleasant. The flavour is clean, with a gentle burn making the spirit lively and fresh. The sweetness is much less pronounced than with an aged spirit, and the bready notes come through well. Butter, cream and marshmallow linger as the spirit coats your tongue, making for a rich but pleasant finish.
To make good use of these flavours I chose a classic New Orleans cocktail to play around with, so die hard fans of the Sazerac should scroll further down the page now to avoid seeing what I’ve done to this most revered of cocktails. I did a twist on this recently with redistilled Peychaud's bitters, that were crystal clear, making a punchy drink that simply looked like a glass of water… but for those who don't have a still to play with, here's the pink version for you to try.
50ml FEW white whiskey
5ml vanilla gomme
3 – 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir all ingredients with plenty of cubed ice and strain into a chilled, absinthe rinsed rocks glass (no ice) before twisting a lemon peel over the top to express the oils. I like to score a line in the peel and leave it resting on the rim of the glass as I believe a Sazerac should never have a peel in it, but I like to smell the lemon all the way through the drink… that’s just my preference though.
This is one of my all time favourite Bourbons and has always stayed on my ‘top 5 list’ since the first time I tasted it. This is a punchy Bourbon, and somehow always makes me think that this is how old fashioned Bourbon must have tasted! Bold and strong, Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a Whiskey that takes no prisoners, and lets you know you’re drinking it.
The strength can vary as this is a cask strength Bourbon, but at a healthy 54%+ abv, the Rare Breed is strong on aroma and should be approached slowly. When smelling and tasting a strong bourbon like this, I suggest treating it like a first date: don’t dive in all tongues and lips, instead try taking your time and getting to know it. Start with the glass held a few inches away from your nose and pick up the aromas, before slowly drawing it closer as you get to know it. Once you’re acclimatised to it, then a larger sniff will reveal plenty of toasted oak, toffee and pepper, along with dark cherry and black currant aromas.
The flavour is bold, and you’ll notice the strength right away, with a lively alcohol tingle on your tongue. Layers of flavour starting with sweet toffee and dark fruit, will be followed by a hint of bitterness, tobacco, toasted wheat and spice. These linger long after you swallow, and as the heat fades this bourbon becomes rich and smooth before the dry almost smoky wood notes finish off the experience. This is definitely one that can be enjoyed as a straight sipping bourbon, preferably accompanied by a cigar, but if you want to indulge yourself why not try it as recommended below.
CHERRY OLD FASHIONED
4 – 5 dark cherries
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Muddle the cherries and gomme together in a mixing glass, add bitters, Bourbon and plenty of cubed ice and stir until well diluted (this may take a while as it’s a strong Whisky and can take plenty of dilution). Fine strain into a rocks glass filled with cubed ice and finish off with an orange twist and a cherry.
This is a great product to introduce you to the newer styles of Bourbon being produced outside of Kentucky. Hudson Baby Bourbon is made in small batches, from Whiskey that has been aged in small new oak barrels. The use of smaller barrels means that the spirit interacts with the wood faster, taking on flavour, aroma and colour in less time than with a larger barrel. The result is interesting, as to me it comes across as a young and lively spirit, but with a depth of flavour that you might expect from an older Bourbon.
This Bourbon seems to be a bit divisive amongst bartenders, with many saying that it is expensive for such a young Whiskey, but as far as I’m concerned, it shows innovation in a category that has been quite traditional for a long time. Also this is a 100% corn Bourbon, which is definitely another break from tradition, as usually a mixture of grains are used, so this Whiskey will give you a real insight into what corn adds to the flavour profile of bourbon. Well worth a try if you’re trying to understand the various components of Bourbon and what they add to the spirit.
50ml buttered popcorn infused Hudson Baby Bourbon
20ml lemon juice
10ml egg white
To make the popcorn infused Bourbon, take a medium sized mason jar and fill it with freshly made buttered popcorn (make it yourself and don’t use salted butter), and fill with Hudson Baby Bourbon. Leave to infuse for 4 – 6 hours, giving the jar a shake from time to time. Fine strain the liquid into a clean jar and put in the freezer for a couple of hours, this will allow the fats to solidify. Remove from the freezer and carefully skim off the solidified fat, before straining the liquid through a coffee filter.
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker along with plenty of cubed ice, and shake well to create a good foam. Strain into a rocks glass filled with cubed ice and garnish with an orange twist.
Every year Evan Williams release a 9 year old vintage, single barrel Bourbon, so every year you will find a different tasting experience. In the case of the Single Barrel 2002 (released in January 2012) their offering is an exceptionally smooth and well balanced bourbon that is surprisingly light for a Whiskey that has spent so much time in the barrel.
The aroma starts off almost floral, with sandalwood and cedar notes upfront, followed by an almost perfume like hint of rose petal. Spice comes through next, with clove and cinnamon balanced against an almost tobacco like finish. On first sipping it you will find it gentle, but as time goes by it builds in intensity nicely. Candy floss and Turkish delight are the first notes, before dry cinnamon and hints of toasted oak make themselves know. The finish is gentle and smooth, with a beautiful balance, and this is definitely another Bourbon that could easily be enjoyed neat.
Just to be different and as the weather has taken a turn for the worse in recent days, I thought I’d try it in a warm drink, and the results were exactly what I hoped for.
ORCHARDS IN THE FALL
20ml cloudy apple juice
20ml lemon juice
4 dried apricots
Heat all the ingredients gently in a small saucepan, but do not bring to the boil. Strain into a pre-warmed heat proof glass and garnish with cinnamon sugar dusted apricots.
Another interesting Bourbon that offers something different than the others on my list, this is a mellow and subtle Whiskey that is gently appealing. You won’t get fireworks from Jefferson's Reserve VO, instead you’ll find a mellow, smooth and almost understated Bourbon. For me this is a great example of what leaving a Bourbon to mature a little longer than usual can do to make the spirit mellower.
The aroma is soft and sweet, with spun sugar, toffee and vanilla fudge balanced by dry wood notes. There’s an almost sawdust like quality to the aroma which is deeply appealing, especially as it cuts through the sweeter notes that are there. On taking a sip I find it almost too subtle at first, the alcohol is gently warming but not fiery at all, and there is almost no bitterness. Starting with brown sugar, the flavour opens up to reveal touches of leather and tobacco, hints of cinnamon and a very pleasant dry wood note. Underneath all this there’s maybe some raisin and dried fruit notes but these again are subtle touches, not bold flavours. The finish is long and smooth, with toasted grains, chocolate and that ever present wood lingering long after you swallow.
This is no doubt what most people would consider a Bourbon to sip neat, and at perfect 45.1% abv it doesn’t really need any adulterating, but that being said, when used with a few supporting ingredients it can make an exceptional cocktail too. I’ve taken an old favourite, the Boulevardier, making a few small changes to let the Bourbon shine as the star of the show.
DOWN ON JEFFERSON BLVD
10ml sweet vermouth (Antica Formula works well)
10ml fino sherry
Stir all ingredients with cubed ice and strain into a chilled coupe before finishing off with a small orange twist.
I’ve saved my favourite until last, and this is a Bourbon I liked so much that I went to work for the brand (and yes I know that makes me slightly biased, but trust me it was on my top 3 list before I started working for them). The Four Roses Single Barrel offers me everything I love about American Whiskey, all wrapped up in a beautiful bottle! It has a very high rye content (35%), which gives it loads of character and a pleasant dry spiciness, but this is balanced against dark fruit, oak and tobacco notes as well as a balanced sweetness that moves towards dark chocolate. In other words it’s delicious.
Four Roses Single Barrel is deceptively smooth, and if you didn’t read the label you’d be hard pressed to guess that it’s 50% abv. In fact the aroma is quite delicate and soft for such a high abv and relatively old Whiskey. There’s toffee sweetness upfront, with plum and cherry in there too, balanced against toasted brioche and warm, dry wood. On sipping it you’ll find it as smooth as the nose suggests, with a pleasant warmth developing as it coats your tongue. The initial sweetness is almost honey like, but quickly falls into balance with dark cherry, toasted almond, and freshly toasted brioche flavours. The finish is long and slowly dries out as first dry spices, then wood notes develop leaving the sweetness to fade into a dark chocolate and tobacco medley that leaves you wanting to take another sip.
For me this is the Bourbon I turn to at the end of a good day, to warm me through as I wind down and relax. That being said, it’s got enough character and flavour to make it perfect for classic cocktails, so below is my go-to drink the Sweet Manhattan… well it seems a shame to over complicate such a tasty Bourbon!
20ml sweet vermouth (keep it simple and use Martini Rosso)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir all ingredients with plenty of cubed ice and strain into a chilled coupe, before garnishing with a cherry and a small orange twist.
As I said at the start of this article, it has been tough to narrow down my list of Bourbons to just 11, but I hope that the above selection represent a wide range of styles and prices to suit every occasion. I could easily have included other old favourites such as Blanton’s Cask Strength, Eagle Rare 10 yo, Ridgemont Reserve 1792, and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, but then we’d be here all day discussing my favourite spirit. I hope that you’ll join me in raising a glass to Americas ‘native spirit’ and will give some of these great Whiskies a try!