Take a Break From Beer- Go Bourbon
By
Karl Mendente


When I think of an alcoholic beverage beginning with "b" of course I think of
beer.  It's not only my favorite adult beverage but also the world's.  However for
many others the b- word is Bourbon, American's only indigenous alcoholic
drink.  And right now it's also the hottest, chic, hip drink in the marketplace.

As beer fans we're almost used the so-called special releases and barrel
aged brews that can go for over $20 for a 22 ounce bottle.  It's an indicator of
the passion for the beer and it's growth in the marketplace.  The same is true
about bourbon with  a whole body of customers more than willing to pay big
money.  Indeed some are now spending hundreds of dollars on the black
market for the rarest and most prestigious brands of bourbon.  That happens
to be Pappy Van Winkle, a 20-year-old, 90-proof Kentucky straight bourbon
so highly sought after there are waiting lists just to enter a lottery. Even then,
it’s pricey at well over $700 a bottle.  If you're lucky enough to find it at a bar
the going rate is around $100 for a single shot.

But while Pappy remains elusive to most, bourbon enthusiasts have nothing to
fret about since overall production has grown by more than 150%.  How did
bourbon, in reality the most blue-collar of booze,  rise to join single-malt
Scotches on the top shelf? The answer lies in Japan. In the mid-1980s, the
bourbon business was dying. Production was down and, beyond bar staples
like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, exports were virtually non-existent. Bourbon
was basically made for the American South, and it had to be cheap. At the
same time, Japan was building its own whisky culture, and the market was
thirsty for something new.  Sitting on surplus inventory, bourbon producers
were happy to export their wares. Soon the Japanese began asking for
something that didn’t quite exist. Accustomed to aged, single-malt Scotch,
they wanted the “good stuff“but bourbon was strictly sold on price, not quality
or age. There was no “good stuff.” Recognizing an opportunity, distillers began
marketing brands under new labels emphasizing age and exclusivity. Slowly,
countries such as Germany, Australia and England took notice, asking for
bottles such as Blanton’s and Booker’s and Knob Creek (both Beam).
The only market that wasn’t buying it: America.

Even in the early-2000s it was rare to talk to a true whisky connoisseur who
didn’t perceive bourbon as a simple, basic liquor for the masses. But came
validation from influential chefs like Anthony Bourdain, David Chang and
especially Sean Brock,  who calls it "America's finest product." Then
publications like the Whisky Advocate started championing it and the cult of
small batch or single barrel bourbon lovers became mainstream.  So much so
that people now book vacations in Kentucky to experience what some are
calling the “Sonoma of the South” and experience bourbon in its true home.

Surprisingly,  very few bourbons are actually distilled by the people who sell
them. There are basically a handful of big distilleries in Kentucky responsible
for nearly every good bourbon you ever heard of. The Buffalo Trace distillery
by itself produces not only its namesake bourbon, but also Eagle Rare,
Blanton's, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee and dozens of others, including the
Old Rip Van Winkle brands although those are all made to minute
specifications.  Think contract brewing, if you will. The fact that so much small-
batch spirit is made at a few large distilleries should come as no surprise,
given how many  outfits had to give up their stills during Prohibition.

Likewise, some of the best bourbons, including Black Maple Hill, don't really
exist as a single liquor with a single recipe: They're mixed from different
bourbons acquired from multiple sources, and aged and bottled by the Willett
Distilling Co. (which has its own line of superb whiskeys). There's nothing
deceitful or wrong about the practice; Johnnie Walker Blue Label is a blended
whiskey, too, and better by far to my taste than any single-malt. You can see
how a person might get confused, though, what with the hand-numbered
bottle and the "limited edition" boast on the label. Still, there's no doubt these
bourbons are worth the cost to the true bourbon connoisseur.

Bourbon is, legally speaking, a whiskey made from at least 51% corn and
aged in charred new oak barrels. The original purpose of charring was to
make the wood smooth and clean, but the burn imparts its own smoky taste
and rich red color, too. As for the requisite newness—barrels are used only
once; after that, they're often shipped off to Scotland for aging that country's
own native spirit—it guarantees that there is plenty of the wood's natural
sugars, vanillas and tannins to impart.  Many are also being bought by craft
brewers cashing in on their industry's new fad - barrel aged brews.

Other ingredients, like rye or wheat, affect the taste, as does the water
bourbon is made with and, of course, the amount of time it sits in a barrel.
Most bourbons are a mix from various barrels the master distiller selects, but
some are from a single barrel he or she considers exceptional.

If you decide to give bourbon a try the next time you visit your local pub
please consider the fact that according to a recent survey  bourbon drinkers
leave the biggest tip averaging 24.5%.  Blended Whiskey drinkers are second
at 23%.  Beer drinkers fall in the middle at nearly 19%.  

If you're still a beer only guy give some of the many available bourbon barrel
aged beers (Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Founders Kentucky
Bourbon Stout, Firestone Double DBA, etc.) a try and you might be converted.

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