A wine geek's guide to some great bourbons

Some history, some great food pairings, and some great bottles

Published May 5, 2010 7:01PM (EDT)

Delicious, delicious bourbon
Delicious, delicious bourbon

The 136th Kentucky Derby may have come and gone, but the spirit of Kentucky -- bourbon -- lives on.

A small glass of bourbon with a glass of water on the side is a delightful meditation, a magical drink: sweet honey, maple and vanilla tempered by the earthy bitterness of alcohol, tied up in fruits and spices. Try bourbon with smoked salmon, smoked chicken, Prosciutto di Parma or Jamón Serrano hams, and especially with a dark chocolate truffle for an unexpectedly near-erotic match, one that brings out the smoky, sweet flavors of these foods.

There are laws governing many aspects of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (the spirit's true moniker), including the grains used in the recipe, called a "mash bill" (must be at least 51 percent "Indian Corn"), aging (which must be done only in new oak barrels, giving it dramatic flavor and color), and how much alcohol the finished product may contain (between 80 and 160 proof, meaning 40- 80 percent alcohol).

But the laws themselves don't guarantee quality, and recently a renaissance of high-quality, "small batch" and "single barrel" bourbons has been setting the spirit world on fire and even reaching booze-resistant wine geeks such as myself. These artisan bourbons can be traced directly to Maker's Mark, where the Samuels family has made small-batch bourbons for five generations, and whose national distribution beginning two decades ago is what raised the bar for bourbon producers. Today, Bill Samuels Jr. and his son Rob preside over one of the smallest commercial bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Aged for six years upon release, "Maker's" produces a scant 38 barrels per day, for both its "Old Style" and "Select" bourbons. Certainly, Maker's didn't invent high-quality bourbon, but it was its surge to popularity that spurred the marketing of older brands and creation of newer brands (see my Bourbon Tasting Notes below).

Recently, I was reminded that fine bourbon should not be reserved solely for mint juleps on Derby Day when I attended a friend’s birthday party. She prepared the most glorious repast of traditional Southeast Asian dishes, which she learned to make while traveling to that part of the world. While enjoying Laotian sticky rice salad and tiny Vietnamese pork meatballs, an extraordinary Thai cucumber salad and green curry with chicken, I noticed an open bottle of Knob Creek and another of Blanton's, the gifts of party guests.

A sip of either bourbon followed by a sip of water (which actually extends both the flavor and finish of the whiskey), and then a bite of these wonderful foods created a state of pure bliss. The oaky, smoky, sweetly bitter bourbon flavors created a rich and sustained counterpoint to the earthy, bold flavors of the Asian foods. The peanut sauce, limes, chilies, mint, coconut milk, garlic, ginger, nuoc mam fish sauce, all melded in balance by the delicate hand of the Birthday Girl, made for an indelible match with both liquors. The Knob Creek added to that simultaneously spiky and rich mix of flavors beautifully rounded honey and maple notes, giving a sweet finish. The Blanton's offered floral and herbaceous qualities, a spicy nose to match the spicy food, and a silky texture and fruity finish. This meal will always be a revelation.

As I savored each morsel and each sip of this Southeast Asian/Southeast American pairing, I was struck by the fact that the flavors in the Asian food were not so different from the flavors in a perfect mint julep. True to culture and tradition, the julep is mint and sugar paired with fine Bourbon and diluted by crushed ice. True to culture and cuisine, there was plenty of mint and sugar in the ingredients of the birthday feast, and the requisite sip of water diluted the bourbon.

Louisville and Laos. Who’d-a-thunk-it? The Planet of the Palate sometimes spins in unexpected and unpredictable ways, but widely diverse experiences can often yield distinctly similar pleasures. 


Fine bourbon, like all fine whiskeys of the world, is meant to be sipped and savored. A small glass of bourbon is best served "neat" or with one or two ice cubes, and always a separate glass of water, a sip of which magically extends the flavor and finish.

Unlike with wine, smelling all spirits should be done by breathing in through a wide-open mouth, not the nose. The power of the alcohol can actually damage the sinuses, or at the very least overwhelm your ability to assess the aromas and bouquet of the bourbon.

Just for the record, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 and George Dickel Original No. 12 are not bourbons, but the only commercially produced Tennessee whiskeys in the world. Produced within 16 miles of each other, these corn-based whiskeys, unlike their Kentucky counterparts, are filtered through 10 feet of hard maple charcoal prior to maturation.

Oh, and by the way, the term "proof" means double the amount of alcohol by volume, so if a bourbon is 100 proof, it's 50 percent alcohol.

Baker's 7 Year Old (107 Proof/$50)

Dark amber, full-bodied, rich and complex. Extraordinarily aromatic: lime zest, cedar, ocean/seaweed, pistachio. A lovely, lingering finish that changes dramatically from nuts to anise.

Blanton's Single Barrel (93 Proof/$55)

Medium amber/orange. Full-bodied but not overwhelming, with a very smooth, almost silky texture. Aromas include smoke, herbs, stone fruits. The finish is moderately spicy, complex, lingering and elegant. Shows its class from first sip to last.

Booker's 7 Year Old Batch-Numbered and Dated (129.6 Proof/$60)

A personally preferred palate-pleasing postprandial, Booker's is dark amber and quite powerful (at almost 65 percent alcohol, it should be), but also subtle, even stylish. Redolent of molasses, spices and butterscotch, the texture is rich, sappy, dense. A nuttiness evolves on the nose and palate, and the finish is surprisingly velvety; smooth and seemingly never-ending.

Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 Year Old/Barrel-Numbered and Dated (90 Proof/$55)

A rare and unusual Bourbon, this oldie certainly retains the character of the barrel, with strong oak tempered by a suggestion of soy or hoisin sauce on the nose. Assertive on the palate but with a creamy texture. Elijah Craig also produces a 12 Year Old Double Distilled Bourbon, which sells for about $15, and is also very fine.

Evan Williams Numbered and Dated Single Barrel Vintage Year (86.6 Proof/$32)

Golden amber color and light-to-medium body. On the nose, oolong tea mixed with bits of citrus zest and dried peel; exotic. On the palate this unique spirit maintains the fruit and spice, with a heady dose of slightly vegetal earthiness.

A.H. Hirsch Finest Reserve Pot Stilled Sour Mash (91.6 Proof/$135)

This is one sexy, almost obscene bourbon, and a great gift for anyone who is serious about whiskey. With the color of 30 Year Tawny Port, it is massive in its Rubenesque power. Warm, viscous and smooth. Luckily, Hirsch is wildly expensive, otherwise it might become addictive. High maintenance and worth every penny.

Knob Creek 9 Year Old (100 Proof/$35)

Amber with a copper hue. Quite popular and with good reason. Medium- to full-bodied, with aromatics ranging from orange zest to dried fruits, from caramel to chocolate. One of the best "food bourbons" due to the balance of spice, fruit and the vanilla overtones of new oak.

Maker's Mark Old Style Sour Mash (90 Proof/$30)

"Maker's" raised the bar for all of Kentucky's bourbon distillers. The ideal introduction to the world of hand-crafted bourbon. Natives of Kentucky living in new environs would beg their relatives and friends to pack some in their luggage when they visited, so the expatriates could have a taste of home and palatal patrimony. Distributed on a national basis for only about the last 25 years. The real deal.

Maker's Mark Select Straight Bourbon Whisky, Black Label (95 Proof/$85)

Wonderfully powerful. The nose reminds me of Grand Marnier, with its inebriated orange and vanilla bouquet. Very spicy, with overtones of clove, allspice, and a touch of nutmeg. The finish is lasting and complex, and I swear I can taste the character of the limestone-laden and calcium-rich waters of Kentucky.

Noah's Mill 15 Year Old (96 Proof/$60)

All amber and copper, Noah's presents a candied/chocolate ginger snap nose, with an underlying flintiness/minerality. I would be happy just to smell this bourbon, but I would deny myself the sensual mouth-feel, the softness on the palate. No shrinking violet, Noah's tastes vital; all nuts, spice and fruit. Its finish is broad, satisfying and complex.

Old Rip Van Winkle 23 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve (95.6 Proof/$175)

You can buy the excellent 90 Proof 20 Year Old for half the money, but if you can find this gem (4,300 bottles produced in 2003), and nearly afford it, splurge. This bourbon has what I can only call "wisdom," its age has created a beauty of a mahogany color in a complex nexus of candy, dried fruits and cigar box aromas. The attack on the palate is tea-tannic, but spreads out in a sea of complexity to finish with sweetness, length, balance and what appears to be true terroir of bourbon. Perhaps it is partially the wheat in the mash bill that makes it so unique.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select (90.4 Proof/$35)

"Everything that's old is new again" should be Woodford's motto. Louisville's own wine-and-spirits giant, Brown-Forman rescued the old Labrot & Graham distillery in Millville, and installed copper pot stills shipped from Scotland. The only bourbon produced in a true pot still in very small batches. On the market only since 2001, the bourbon ages for six years in barrel before release. This is heady stuff: full-bodied, smooth, rich and extremely viscous. A bourbon for hedonists and pleasure seekers. Fleshy, sensual, round and warm. Flavors reminiscent of dates dipped in vanilla sauce and caramel. Tasting Woodford Reserve sent a welcome shiver down my back. 

By Steven Kolpan

Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world

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