Four score and seven years ago. Wait, that’s not it. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. OK, clearly history wasn’t my best subject. So as an introduction to Bourbon Heritage Month, I’ll stick to the basics of how we got to having a whole month dedicated to Bourbon. If I missed something, you can probably ask Google, it pretty much knows everything. Then I’ll tell you about some of my favorite Bourbons, as well as the cocktails you can make with them.
For the last couple thousand years, it seems that fermentation was happening somewhere. I’m going to guess that it was likely accidental the first couple of times – fruit left too long in a jug in the back of the hut sort of thing. But after they figured it out, it was definitely no longer accidental. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks had a fondness for wine, the Vikings had a thing for a nice horn of mead. Eventually, someone figured out distillation and they made not only alcohol to drink, but perfumes and whatnot. Fast forward a smidge and Columbus landed in America (no, he didn’t discover it and we all know why not). Things were going along until the farmers realized that they had a ton of corn, that was bulky and heavy to transport, and could rot before it was used. What’s an easy way to convert it? Whiskey! Turn those bushels and bushels of corn into a few gallons of whiskey and you were on your way. Plus, some people thought it was an upgrade from just plain corn, go figure.
When the government realized that they weren’t getting a cut of the proceeds from the shiny new whiskey trade, and they stepped in to fix that. The farmers weren’t super keen on that idea, and actually rebelled! George Washington sent a couple thousand troops and the farmers decided that perhaps paying a bit of tax on their whiskey, to not have to look down the business end of a musket, was a fair trade.
The delightful years of The Noble Experiment (Prohibition) were next in terms of liquor history. We suffered through that, though some better than others because they had “medicinal” whiskey. Yep, some folks got whiskey declared as medicine, so not everyone went without or tried their hand at making it in the backwoods.
Distillers slowly but surely came back after Prohibition, but not as quickly as brewers and vintners. Canada and Ireland were still distilling through the dry years, but Prohibition wasn’t all that awesome for anyone in the world. We finally came to our senses and repealed Prohibition, America started drinking again (Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men, anyone?) and time marched on.
The origins of Bourbon aren’t well documented. The name came from the royal Bourbon family of France, but there seems to be some dispute after that. Which part of the US, named after the family, was the source of the whiskey named Bourbon? I’m not sure it really matters much. An Act of Congress declared Bourbon “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964, which is also why it’s capitalized. Again, another nifty source of debate, but I like the way it looks and I think it should be capitalized. And this is my article. So there. In 2007, September was declared Bourbon Heritage Month by our trusty government, prompted by a Senator from…you guessed it, Kentucky. Let the celebrations begin! There’s a festival and other interesting events in Kentucky throughout September, you should check them out if you’re down that way.
Here’s a roundup of some of my favorite Bourbons, from the “drink it if they’re someone else’s” to the “I can have that on my shelf and still eat”. I don’t always want straight whiskey, so I’ve also included a couple of my favorite cocktails, too.
High end Bourbons (or “drink someone else’s”): Let me just mention the unicorn of Bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle. You’ve probably heard of it, and might even know someone that has a bottle. Personally, I have no desire to chase it around, nor pay a bunch of money to just try it. If someone offers, I’d say go for it, but for my money, I want to try stuff I have some hope in hell of actually owning. Enough said.
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection – speaking of things I have some hope of owning (I did get a bottle of Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye, which is fantastic. But this is Bourbon month, not rye month.) I like the Eagle Rare 10, so I can only imagine that the BTAC version is that much better.
Elijah Craig 23 – one I’ve not had (23, not Elijah Craig), but I know people that searched for the bottle pretty hard, and said it was worth it. See the Single Barrel in the next category – I’d definitely try it if someone were sharing!
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection – another Bourbon I’ve liked everything I’ve had. I’d imagine that the Master’s Collection is just as fabulous.
Budget Bourbons: These Bourbons come in the $25-$45 range, which I think is a comfortable price, and ensures you aren’t drinking nail polish remover. Plus, you won’t feel bad if you’re like me and you want a cocktail instead – go ahead, you can afford to mix these!
Four Roses Small Batch or Single Barrel – any Four Roses Bourbon is good, but step up the few extra bucks to either the Small Batch or the Single Barrel and you won’t regret it. The Yellow Label is about $20 a bottle and does nicely for parties and things were you don’t want to bust out the good stuff.
Buffalo Trace – outside the Antique Collection, Buffalo Trace makes what I think of as an every-day drinking Bourbon. It’s good on the rocks, or mixed in a cocktail.
Elijah Craig Single Barrel Vintage – made by Heaven Hill, home of brands like Evan Williams and Rittenhouse Rye (good stuff, too), I like this particular Elijah Craig for its smooth, full taste. The first time I had it, it was a bit like a cherry Tootsie pop at the end, that chocolate-y/cherry flavor. For $35, it’s one of the better single barrels I’ve had.
Larceny – this is another good Bourbon, on the lower end of the budget range. A good every day Bourbon, and it’s got a cool bottle.
Bourbon Cocktails: Bourbon really is quite versatile. I’ve had it in things like Palomas (normally it’s tequila) and with a beer float (on top, not like ice cream) and it works really well no matter what the cocktail. Give it try!
Mint Julep – You can’t really have a Bourbon cocktail list without the quintessential Kentucky Derby drink. Straight-forward, easy to make with only 3 ingredients (and one of them is Bourbon), the traditional recipe can be embellished – fruit, cognac, whatever you think works. Woodford Reserve even does a $1,000 Mint Julep for the Kentucky Derby, with proceeds supporting retired thoroughbreds.
Old Fashioned – if you haven’t had it, give it a try. Another cocktail with only a few basic ingredients (and fresh oranges), that showcases your Bourbon of choice nicely. Easy to make, and even easier to drink.
Kentucky Mule – pretty much a regular Mule, with Bourbon instead (ginger beer, Bourbon, lime juice, over ice). Great stuff – it’s also a good way to drink that Bourbon that wasn’t super great. The ginger beer will mask most of the unpleasant characteristics of the hooch.
So there you have it: a bit of Bourbon history, what to drink if you’re having it (and I have no idea why you wouldn’t), what to mix it with. Enough reading – go have some Bourbon! Cheers!
Article by: Jeanne Runkle