Bourbon. It is THE southern spirit.
The mere mention of the word conjures juleps, a toddy, heavy highballs etched with a new wedding monogram, jovial fetes thrown under a tent in the golden light of October with the fight song playing in the background. We celebrate weddings, babies, graduations, anniversaries, and even a well-deserved divorce.
It’s a reminiscent spirit. It pairs best with stories, legends, and tall tales.
And while men traditionally drink it neat, on the rocks, or in a carefully crafted Old Fashioned, women learned to use necessity as the mother of spirited inventions adding it to fudge pies and layer cakes, making cream sauces for medium-rare steaks or slightly over-cooked pork chops. We’ve also been known to pour it over ice and pass it off as sweet tea a time or two.
It’s a versatile spirit, but one not to be trifled with. You need to have a little sense about you when you’re buying bourbon, so we put together a basic guide to get you started.
3 Things to Understand about Bourbon
It is a tricky spirit, but versatile and beloved in the South. One thing to understand is that they vary wildly from year to year, distillery to distillery, and so on. Several variables make up a single bourbon, and everyone likes their’s just a little bit different. I prefer an older, higher proof bottle. Some like mild, smooth bourbons. So, it’s essential to know a few things about how bourbon is born so you can better guess which one will suit your preference.
- Mash Bill – the mash bill is essentially the recipe. It is the combination of three grains: corn, rye or wheat, and malted barley. Bourbon, by definition, has to be 51% corn; the remaining 49% is where the taste variations come in. Corn gives it sweetness, so the higher the percentage, the sweeter it is. Rye is a flavoring grain and gives it heat or spiciness. Alternately, the mash bill can contain wheat which makes a sweeter bourbon with hints of vanilla and caramel. Our friend, Pappy Van Winkle, made wheated bourbon popular. Finally, malted barley is necessary for the fermenting process. It turns the starches into sugar, so it’s usually a small percentage of the mash bill and doesn’t impart a lot of flavor.
- Age – The simple explanation is that the longer a bourbon ages in a charred barrel, the more flavor it will have. It will also have a higher price tag. I like my bourbon like I like my people, aged a bit with a little heat. To be called straight bourbon, it has to be aged at least two years. Any bourbon under four years old has to have an age statement on the bottle. The dance is balancing the flavors bourbon picks up with age with the proof, because as bourbon ages in the barrel, it drops in proof.
- Proof – Proof is a measurement of alcohol in the spirit. In the United States proof is two times the percentage of alcohol by volume. So, to avoid having to do wonky bourbon math, a 100 proof bottled-in-bond bourbon is 50% alcohol by volume. What that means for your taste buds and your liver is this: the higher the proof the “hotter” or spicier the bourbon because there is more alcohol by volume. If you ever had a run-in with moonshine or PGA, you understand proof. And we hope you weren’t blinded by it.
So the dance is finding a bottle with some age and a sturdy proof, and the only way to do that is by trying some. Remember, bourbon at its heart is a social spirit; it’s slow and easy. You don’t shoot bourbon. You don’t gulp bourbon. It’s for lingering. Talking. Sitting a spell.
4 Ways to Drink Bourbon
- Neat – no ice, just bourbon in a glass. If you have good bourbon, you drink it neat. There’s no other way. People will tell you “on the rocks” is okay, but it’s not how we do things down here. Good bourbon is meant for long conversations with people you love. You need a good glass, a good story, and good company for drinking bourbon neat.
- On the rocks – Three words: Not. Down. Here. Yes, it’s true, some high-proof bourbons, especially barrel picks, might require something to tame them a bit, but we use water. And just a few drops.
- In a cocktail – There are sipping bourbons, and there are mixing bourbons. You want to make sure you understand the difference. Nothing screams amateur like someone making cocktails with a rare bourbon like Weller 12 or throwing it in a glass of Diet Coke. Pappy Van Winkle will roll over in his grave if you mix a rare bourbon with something other than good company. There are two reasons for this, one- rare bourbons like Weller 12 are usually not high proof bourbons, so the taste of the mixers masks the taste of the bourbon. And then what’s the point? Two, you never mix rare bourbons in a cocktail. It’s like throwing polar fleece over Prada.
- Mixed Drinks– A mixed drink is precisely that, a spirit combined with a mixer (i.e., coke, ginger ale, cranberry juice, Hawaiian Punch if you still live in a frat house…). Jack and Coke is not a cocktail- it’s a mixed drink. Cocktails lean toward art. Mixed drinks are for tailgates, canoe trips, fishing, or when you’re in a hurry. When you do mix bourbon, it likes ginger ale, coke, and most southern soft drinks.
Bourbons You Need in Your Cabinet
- A kitchen bourbon is one you use for baking and cooking. Did you know that you can add bourbon to a cream sauce for a steak? And it makes a salad dressing that people will swoon over. You can use it in place of vanilla in chocolate desserts, make bourbon balls, marinate a pork tenderloin, etc. The point is that bourbon is an extremely versatile culinary spirit. You want a bourbon with good flavor, but also one that isn’t expensive. Some to try: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond (white label), Four Roses, Buffalo Trace (though it is now an allocated bourbon and harder to find)
- A mixing bourbon is one you use to mix cocktails. You want to find one that is a high proof so the spirit remains forward in the drink, but is also affordable, because, well sometimes Cousin Eddie will want to put it in Mountain Dew and you don’t want your soul to die. (There’s a caveat here. IF you know someone who makes an exceptional Old Fashioned – one that does NOT involve a sugar cube and a maraschino cherry- then a higher quality bourbon is in order.) The proof determines the “heat” of the bourbon and higher proof bourbons can meld with other spirits and with mixers. Some to try: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond, Old Grandad 114, Wild Turkey 101
- A good company bourbon is one to have on hand when friends come over, and you want to linger a bit on a porch or by a fire and visit. It’s generally a bit more expensive than a kitchen bourbon. It’s also known as a sipping bourbon. I like mine with age and heat. As a bourbon ages, it does lose some proof, so it’s a dance. I prefer bourbons that are 12-15 years old. You can find good sipping bourbons in the $50 range as well as the $1200 and up range, so it’s your call. You wouldn’ be wrong if you had an Old Fashioned made with one of these. Some to try: Weller 12 (if you can find the unicorn, buy it!), Weller Antique 107, EH Taylor, Russell’s Reserve 10-year, Four Roses Barrel Pick, or Pappy Van Winkle if you’re Jay Gatsby.
- A celebration bourbon is one you have for big moments. An engagement! A baby (just not mama, okay?)! A new job! Find the nicest bottle you can afford, and save it for celebration moments. Attach a tag to the neck. Record the moment and the date on the tag, so that you can see all the things you celebrated with the bottle. Look for unique barrel picks. Some to try: High Priced: Willett Family Estate, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee, Pappy Van Winkle 15 year, or Elijah Craig 23 year. Mid Priced: Four Roses Barrel Pick; Russels Reserve Barrel Pick; Weller Special Reserve; Buffalo Trace