We’re well into Autumn now, the jackets and sweaters are coming out, and people are swapping their margaritas and mojitos for fall cocktails. That means its whisky season!
As the popularity of American Whisky has increased, we’ve seen manhattans, old fashioneds and variations on other classic whisky cocktails come to be a staple on cocktail menus. Maybe you’ve even been to a whisky bar or a bar-b-que restaurant hosting 50+ bottles of American whiskies. For the uninitiated, it can be an overwhelming task to select a bourbon or rye that is right for you, and you may not have wanted to ask the leather apron clad, tattooed bartender what the difference is between all these products while he’s stirring two cocktails or tapping into a mini aging barrel on his bar.
If you know this stuff, go ahead and skip to the photos, but here’s a little information about what exactly you’re drinking when bourbon season rolls around.
What is bourbon?
Bourbon is American whisky. Like for Champagne or Tequila, there are strict standards in effect to protect the integrity of this product. Bourbon whisky must be from the United States, though Kentucky is the historical home of bourbon. It must be made at least 51% corn, and it must be aged in American oak barrels that are new and charred on the inside. The charred barrels give bourbon its flavor and caramel color. Many drinkers are surprised to see that Jack Daniels, the famous Tennessee whisky, is actually clear when it leaves the still, as are all bourbons and ryes. They take on their signature flavor and color after the aging process.
Straight Bourbon has even more stringent criteria. In addition to all the above regulations, it must be aged for at least 2 years.
Bonded Bourbon follows all these regulations but is bottled at 100 proof, or 50% alcohol
What is Rye?
Rye whisky follows a similar set of regulations, but must be made up of at least 51% rye grain instead of corn. Rye grain, like in rye bread, often gives this type of whisky a slightly more spicy, savory flavor. Consider the difference between rye bread and cornbread when selecting between bourbon and rye. However, the other 49% of grains in the mash that makes your whisky have much to do with the finished product, and you can find bourbons that are more savory and ryes that are more sweet and creamy. The only way to find out what you like best, is to try some!
Keep in mind that there are other sub-categories of American whiskies; blends, sour mash style, and white dog (unaged whisky,) but for our purposes we will focus on bourbon and rye. If you get interested in whisky, start experimenting with different styles for fun and comparison. But buyer beware! Some blended American whiskies contain neutral grain spirits. This is an indication of a lower quality spirit.
On that note, here are a few products that we like to sip on at home or use in our cocktails.
The budget option- Under $20
Old Overholt Rye
Old Heaven Hill Bourbon
The Middle of the Road- $25-35
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
The Discerning Taster- $45-60
Blantons Single Barrel Bourbon
Special occasion $80+
Willet Pot Still Reserve Straight bourbon
Whistlepig 12 year Old World Rye
The Legend of Pappy Van Winkle
If you have any experience with bourbon, you’ve probably heard of Pappy Van Winkle, the impossible to find, waiting list only, outlandishly expensive bourbon. It comes in several ages, starting at 10 and going up to 23 years; the 23 going for upwards of $3000 online. Our opinion? While Pappy is a delicious, smooth and complex bourbon, it’s become too famous for the average drinker. You can easily find comparable bourbons in the $100-200 range. Leave the Pappy for the collectors, and experiment with some lesser known brands if you’re feeling adventurous. But, if you’re rich uncle breaks it out around the holidays, drink up, and buy the man a cigar. You could probably take a weekend vacation with the price of your glass of whisky.