Being from Ireland, I had an appreciation of whiskeys that was limited to Irish and Scotch, single malts and blends. Good American whiskeys were hard to find in Europe. When I moved to Indy, I discovered America’s contribution to the whiskey world: bourbon.
My first foray into bourbon appreciation came under the guidance of the great-grandson of Jim Beam. Fred Noe is a seventh-generation master distiller at the Jim Beam Distillery. I met Fred at a tasting event; seven whiskeys were lined up to be discussed and sampled. After completing the first seven, we broke for a light lunch and repeated it all again. I learned a lot about bourbon that day, including different ways to drink it.
While enjoyable as a straight spirit, bourbon’s versatility as a mixer has helped it reach its current popularity. Cocktail bars such as the Ball & Biscuit have led the charge, with bartenders like Zach Wilks unearthing vintage recipes and giving them a modern twist. Whatever your preference, it is helpful to understand what makes bourbon unique, what gives it its flavor and how to take advantage of the best this spirit has to offer.
Production methods: A set of strict laws govern bourbon production. It must be distilled from a mash of at least 51 percent corn, with wheat, rye or barley making up the remaining 49 percent. It is distilled to 160 proof (or less) and aged in newly charred American oak casks.
Aging: Straight bourbon means the whiskey has been aged for at least two years, but most bourbon is aged for at least four years. In a sour mash, a small amount of fermented matter from an older batch is added to keep consistent flavor.
Categories: Bourbon falls into three categories: high corn, high rye and high wheat. Each category is composed of its own distinctive mash bill, or recipe, of the grains used during production. For example, a high rye bourbon may have 60 percent corn, 35 percent rye and 5 percent barley, while a high corn recipe may contain 70 percent corn, 25 percent rye and 5 percent barley.
Flavors: Each recipe produces different aromas and flavors. High corn recipe bourbons, such as Jim Beam and Old Pogue’s, run from sweetness to light spice. High rye bourbons have a distinctive bold and spicy character, some good examples are Bulleit (which makes a great Manhattan) and Basil Hayden’s Small Batch.
High wheat bourbons or wheated bourbons have a vanilla and caramel flavor, and unmistakable softness. Makers Mark is probably the most recognizable brand, but other excellent examples are Van Winkle and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers 17-year.
Denis Lynch is the beverage manager at Vine & Table in Carmel.
For the novice bourbon drinker:
1792 Ridgemont Reserve ($25.99)
- Named for the year that Kentucky became a state.
- Rich in flavor but very soft and velvety.
Woodford Reserve ($33.99)
- Cream, toffee, vanilla, honeycomb ... who wouldn’t like this?
- Take a shot and mix with ginger ale and a squeeze of fresh lime and head straight to the Kentucky Derby!
Old Pogue Master Select ($35.99).
- A bourbon with an Indiana connection.
- Nine years of maturing produces lovely herbal aromas, with a healthy dose of maple syrup and brown sugar on the palate.
- A smooth mellow character makes for good sipping.
For the experienced drinker:
Wathen's Single Barrel ($39.99)
- 250 years of distilling experience have resulted in this exceptional bourbon.
- Big, hearty, full-bodied and spicy. Chocolate, leather and spice dominate, yet it is extremely drinkable.
Blanton's Single Barrel ($49.99)
- Everything that you want in a glass: caramel, bourbon and vanilla. The granddaddy of all single-barrel bourbons.
- Pour yourself a measure, sink into an armchair and quietly contemplate this legendary beauty.
Prichard's Double Barreled ($64.99)
- A bourbon from Tennessee ... don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Phil Prichard’s unique system of aging has resulted in a bourbon that’s complex in character and flavor.
- Boutique bourbon at its best.
Can Indiana make bourbon?
Some of the best-known bourbon comes from our Wildcat neighbor south of the Ohio River, but Hoosier native Jerry Knight, founder of Tipton Spirits, makes his hooch in Southern Indiana. Indiana bourbon, he claims, hasn’t been produced since before Prohibition.
W.H. Harrison Indiana Bourbon is named for William Henry Harrison, the Indiana Territory governor and ninth U.S. president. Tipton makes two types: Harrison Straight (80 proof) and Governor’s Reserve (116 proof). Both earned favorable reviews on BourbonBlog.com.
The bourbons are sold in Illinois, Louisiana, Rhode Island and the Pacific Northwest. Sun King is using W.H. Harrison to produce a barrel-aged ale this fall. Next up: Tipton will release Desiree Vodka. --Arthur Black, special to Metromix