What is Bourbon?

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It’s Kentucky Derby time, (the Derby will be on May 5th, 2012) which means Americans are enjoying the classic mint julep cocktail, based on one of America’s most distinctive spirits: Bourbon. But what is Bourbon and how is it made?

Contrary to popular belief, Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. At the very least, the mixture of grains that make up a Bourbon must be at least 51% corn with the balance being any grain, including wheat, barley, rye, corn or rice. Also, the resulting whiskey must be put into new, charred white oak barrels. In order to be called a “Straight Bourbon,” the whiskey
must be aged for a minimum of two years. Incidentally, after these barrels have been used for Bourbons, they are often shipped to Scotland for the aging of Scotch whisky.

My selections for this month are all nice variations on the Bourbon theme and are great on their own or make great mint juleps!

Woodford Reserve, Kentucky, 45.2% ABV ($40)
The classic Bourbon to make a mint julep, Woodford tends to the sweeter side of the flavor spectrum, playing well with the mint and sugar. Rich and smooth, this is a very easy whiskey to enjoy--perhaps too easy!

Bulleit Bourbon, Kentucky, 45% ABV ($40)
A drier, spicier cousin to Woodford, with its grain mash being ⅔ corn and ⅓ rye. This is my go-to for everyday drinking and for cooking.  I use Bourbon in a pan sauce: after searing off your meat, pour in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of stock or water. When the liquid comes to a boil, pour in a couple ounces of Bulleit and watch the flames fly! Allow sauce to reduce to your desired consistency and enjoy the sweet and spicy notes the Bourbon adds to your savory sauce.

Hudson Baby Bourbon, New York, 46% ABV ($45 for 375ml)
New Yorkers, rejoice! Bourbon is finally being made in the Empire State again. The Baby Bourbon is made from 100% corn and aged for 3-5 months in small oak casks. The resulting dram is rich and warm, with cinnamon and clove up front and the sweetness sneaking up on you from behind.

Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whiskey, Texas, 46% ABV ($60)
While technically not a Bourbon because of how it’s processed, this Waco distillery takes blue corn and roasts it before mashing, so the whiskey has a subtle smoky quality to it. It is a young dram, just like its Hudson counterpart, but adds a refreshing peppery spice along with the smoke. The mint julep that I made with this one was somewhat lighter in body than the Woodford cocktail and married well with the mint.

Black Maple Hill, Kentucky, 47.5% ABV ($60)
Snatch this one up while you can, folks. It’s becoming as hard to find as the illustrious Pappy Van Winkle! Perhaps one of my all-time favorite Bourbons, with bananas and cinnamon up front and floral notes in the middle. The finish is long and warm with a lingering sweetness that begs for another taste.