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Bourbon: We Just Call It "Nectar"

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Apr 27, 2006 6:00PM


Chicagoist has been waiting for the right moment to write a primer on bourbon. With the Kentucky Derby nine days away, and with the recently reported news of Churchill Downs serving a one-thousand-dollar mint julep on Derby Day, we figured the time is nigh.

Chicagoist loves bourbon. It brings to mind images of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Colonel Harland Sanders, and the blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek. Spend an extended amount of time in Kentucky Bourbon country, and you'll notice the distinct aroma of mash in the air from nearby distilleries, like the trip we took to the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky - the only operating distillery in the United States that is a designated national historic landmark - some years ago. Some folks can't get past the way bourbon "burns" their throat on the way down, but that's proof that the distillers care. Although Chicagoist stocks a fair amount of bourbons for work, we've yet to find a place that carries the range of bourbons stocked at Delilah's. If you want to get a hands-on lesson in bourbon, Delilah's is the best place in the city to do so. If you just want to take our word for it, read on.

Bourbon in Kentucky almost qualifies as a religion. They certainly take pride in its production; although bourbon can be distilled anywhere, Kentucky is the only state whose name may appear on a bottle's label. Bourbon is classified as a "straight whiskey". What that means is that bourbon has a primary grain. Bourbon is distilled from at least 51 percent corn, with a mixture of other grains for a blend of flavors. Most bourbons are distilled with 65-to-75 percent corn. After the mashing process, bourbon is then aged in freshly charred white oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Charring the oak darkens the wood and caramelizes its natural sugars. Those sugars are then absorbed into the bourbon. Bourbon distillers say that the whiskey "breathes" in the barrel: expanding into the wood's pores during the summer "aging" season, and contracting during the winter. Bourbon takes more flavor and smoothness from the wood the longer it's aged. In some master crafted, small batch bourbons you'll pick up notes of black cherry, vanilla, toffee, citrus, and sweeter spices like cinnamon or cloves. Bourbon distillers then pass the love down, often selling their used barrels to cognac and scotch distilleries for aging their respective spirits. Many scotches and cognacs you taste have trace flavors associated with bourbon, due to their aging in the used barrels.

The flavors we mentioned are also more prominent in longer-aged bourbons. The photo accompanying this post shows Russell's Reserve on the left and Jefferson's Reserve on the right. Russell's Reserve is a ten-year-old small batch made by Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell. Currently bottled at 90 proof (45 percent alcohol by volume), this whiskey is a deep amber in color with notes of toffee and vanilla, but it packs a smoother punch reminiscent of Wild Turkey's 101 proof "kickin' chicken". Jefferson's Reserve, judging from the level of the bottle, is one of our favorites. It's 90.2 proof and aged anywhere between twelve-to-seventeen years. After twelve years the distillers take what's remaining in the barrels (the evaporated whiskey is known as the "angel's share"), blends it, and either bottles it or lets it age a few years more, depending on the flavor.

Other bourbons to try are Buffalo Trace, the Jim Beam small batch line (containing Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, Baker's, and Booker's), Pappy Van Winkle, and W.L. Weller. If we've piqued your interest, check out this link for more information on bourbon than you'll care to know. You'll be glad you did.