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The rise of bourbon

This classic American spirit is attracting a new generation of devotees on both sides of the Atlantic

The rise of bourbon
Bourbon Bar, JW Steakhouse. Image: DiffordsGuide.com

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Bourbon, eh? American stuff? Kind of like whisky?
Not ‘like whisky’. It is whisky. Well, ‘whiskey’. With an ‘e’. And it’s not to be looked down upon. Scotch has the social cachet, but bourbon is on the rise in the UK. Sales topped £1bn here last year, with Britons drinking more than one million litres of the stuff every month. There are a few potential reasons for the spike. The ever-thirsty Don Draper from TV’s Mad Men became a flag-bearer, while the current popularity of American-style barbecues here in the UK certainly hasn’t hurt. But it’s mostly because bourbon is seen as more accessible than the esoteric, rarefied world of Scotch. Bourbon feels more ‘anything goes’, and lends itself more to cocktail culture.

What makes it a bourbon?
All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. The main difference is that Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, while bourbon is made mostly from corn — at least 51%. While bourbon is commonly associated with Kentucky (95% of it comes from the Bluegrass State), it can made anywhere in America. Furthermore, it must be bottled at 80 proof or higher and aged in new, charred oak barrels (the used barrels are usually then given to Scotch or rum distillers). There’s no ageing requirement, but ‘straight’ bourbon needs to age for at least two years.

The only bourbon I’ve had is Jack Daniel’s.
This is awkward. Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon. Well, it is. But it isn’t. Technically, it fulfils all the requirements needed to call itself a bourbon, but… chooses not to, preferring the appellation ‘Tennessee whiskey’. Essentially a bourbon, and then some, it takes the further step of filtering through stacks of sugar maple charcoal. This is known as the Lincoln County Process, and is the prime distinction between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon.

How do I drink it? Just slam it back while thinking about the Star-Spangled Banner?
You could. But good bourbons can be sipped like a good single malt. As mentioned earlier, it’s also great for cocktails. The most famous ones are the Old Fashioned, Mint Julep and the Manhattan. One of our favourites is the Negroni’s sister, the Boulevardier — equal parts of bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari conspire to create a bracing but warming drink. Meanwhile, adventurous drinkers can also seek out bourbons that have been ‘fat-washed’, which is a way of flavouring spirits with fatty foods such a bacon or cheese — although, with a description like that, you’d be forgiven for preferring a cocktail.

And what should I be buying?
Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark (you know, the one with the red wax seal) are both pretty smooth and drinkable. But if you’ve got a couple of grand to spare, you could try to track down a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old Family Reserve. The production run is so small that bars sell shots for hundreds of dollars, and some people have even resorted to stealing the stuff.

As featured in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food.