The Bourbon Renaissance

John Autry
by Joe Bargmann - Kentucky - Feb/March 2010

Kentucky's finest has never tasted better

My fascination with bourbon started when I was a kid. Standing in my grandmother’s kitchen doorway, I watched in awe as she reached into a cabinet, grabbed a pint bottle of bourbon, and took a glug that would have made Godzilla gasp. Then she looked at me and said, “Courage.”

Following the family script, I, too, grew to love bourbon. But the notion of the whiskey’s being “good” or “bad” didn’t enter my mind until many years later, in the late 1980s, when the premium bourbon trend started. As with high-end vodkas or microbrewed beers, the trend grew in the 1990s and continues to this day, evidenced by an array of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, made with carefully selected barrels and increased aging times. “What you were drinking twenty years ago doesn’t compare to what you can get today,” says Mary Ellyn Hamilton, curator of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky. “You drank the big brands, your Old Grand-Dad and Jim Beam. They were good, but now you have really good and excellent labels to choose from.”

Here, informed by decades of trial and error—and a recent informal tasting with a trusted friend—are four of my favorites.

The Brute
Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old, Single Barrel, $30

Eagle Rare is one of the Buffalo Trace family of bourbons, which includes the eponymous brand, plus popular old labels such as Ancient Age and W. L. Weller. Whiskey production on the site of the current distillery dates back to about 1787, but Eagle Rare debuted much later, in 2001.

Taste test
I had seen the word oily in some reviews of Eagle Rare. It’s an accurate description: The stuff is viscous bordering on chewy. I smelled tobacco when I put my nose over the rim of the glass, tasted oak and toast with the first sip, and was delighted by the sweet and spicy finish. Brand manager Kris Comstock won’t reveal the recipe, or mash-bill, proportions but says the mix is corn, rye, and malted barley.

How to drink it
The robust flavor makes Eagle Rare ideal for mixing in an old-fashioned, with bitters, a bit of sugar, and an orange-slice garnish.

The King
Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year-Old, $60

The Van Winkle family presides over this coveted, limited-production label, founded by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., in 1935. The 23-year-old costs well in excess of $200, but I actually prefer the 15-year-old, partly for economic reasons but mostly because the stuff is liquid dynamite.

Taste test
Pappy 15 filled my mouth with a dazzling array of lingering flavors—molasses, charred oak, orange zest, caramel. The not-so-secret ingredient is wheat. “At fifteen years, this batch picks up some of the wood from the barrel, but the wheat tends to cue the lighter, toastier notes,” explains Preston Van Winkle, the great-grandson of Julian Sr. As my friend put it, “This is what all bourbon should taste like.” My response: “I only wish!”

How to drink it
One ice cube, two max, and only spring-water ice, just like my pappy taught me.

The Princess
Four Roses Single Barrel, $39

More than a hundred years old, this historic brand has enjoyed huge popularity outside the United States—particularly in Asia and Europe. Its reintroduction to the domestic market started in 2002, and the sublime Single Barrel is now available in more than twenty states.

Taste test
My friend was onto something when he pegged Four Roses as tasting a bit like Scotch: Master distiller Jim Rutledge told me that the mash bill consists of 60 percent corn, 35 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley. “The high rye content makes it lighter-tasting than most bourbons,” he said. “The yeast we use for the Single Barrel creates a delicate, fruity flavor.” But while light on the palate, the stuff is 100 proof and kicks like a mule.

How to drink it
On the rocks, with a splash of sparkling water and a lemon twist to complement the bourbon’s natural fruitiness.

The Workhorse
Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon, $49

Blanton’s claims to be the first commercial single-barrel bourbon, which is fine by me, because it sets a high standard. It was introduced in 1984, but the label’s namesake is Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton, one of the leading figures in the evolution of bourbon during the early 1900s.

Taste test
Blanton’s is aged in the only steam-heated bourbon warehouse in the world, which leads to its deep, concentrated flavors. Dry and delicate on the first sip, the bourbon grows in richness as it sits on the tongue, and there’s a sweet background note, like toffee or caramel, that balances out the dryness.

How to drink it
While its costliness might recommend it as a sipping whiskey, I think Blanton’s makes a killer manhattan. The sweet vermouth counters the dryness, and the bitters seem to draw out the bourbon’s hidden citrus flavors.

Yankee Whiskey?
Bourbon finds a home up north

Contrary to popular belief, bourbon needs only to be produced in the United States—not just Kentucky—to legally bear the name. (The other criteria include storage in new charred oak barrels and a recipe of no less than 51 percent corn.) A little company called Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York, seized on this loophole a few years back and with stereotypical impatience began producing Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey ($40; 375 ml bottle), a 100-percent-corn mash bottled young, at no more than two years. “It’s not overwhelming, which it might be if it sat on the oak for a long time,” says Ralph Erenzo, a partner in the distillery. “Frankly, we don’t give a damn about the age of the whiskey. Does it taste good, look good, and feel good in your mouth and on your throat? That’s all that matters to us.” He sounds like a typical cocky New Yorker—but damned if he isn’t justified for being that way, having made a sweet sippin’ whiskey far from the place that bourbon was born.