American whiskey is in the midst of a thrilling revival. The increasing price of scotch and the resurgence of serious cocktail culture across Europe and America have left bourbon and rye more popular than ever. Fancy drinking like your favourite character on Mad Men? Whether you’re serious about liquor or just a casual fan of Old Fashioneds, bourbon and rye are pleasures not to be missed.
The lure of the South
Mark my words. You’ll be back soon. The South’s got a lot of wrong with it. But it’s permanent press and it doesn’t wear out.
(Pat Conroy, Beach Music)
Every so often, through the noise and fads of big-city life, I hear the comforting rumble of the American South.
For all its obvious challenges, spending time in the South is like a marinade in the richness of life: jazz, country and the blues; vast landscapes; barbecue, shrimp and peaches; football; community; quietude; heat and thunderstorms; sweet tea; the Mississippi; New Orleans; God; grit. It’s potent.
To anyone who shares our affection for the South, bourbon and rye are the go-to elixirs. These golden liquors concentrate the essence of the South into liquid form: generous, spicy and warm. Ever since I first discovered American whiskey, I’ve been entranced by its deep caramel undertones, mouth-coating viscosity and its unique triple whammy of smoothness, nut and flame. Today, whenever I feel the call of the South, laughing at my big-city pretensions, I reach for my favourite bottle and engage in a little act of communion with a region I love.
Right now, it looks like the rest of the world is really into these whiskeys too. All our favourite bars are serving Manhattans and Old Fashioneds and every month brings some new rye or another. So here’s a beginners’ guide to what bourbon and rye are all about and how to choose from the most readily-available brands.
Bourbon and rye basics
American whiskey is the quintessential spirit of the South, found in every bar and flowing in the blood of most Southerners by the time they hit twelve adulthood. Its spiritual home is in Kentucky, where the majority of bourbons and ryes are still proudly made. But while bourbon in particular is closely associated with the South, it can actually be made anywhere in America. Just don’t say that to anyone from Kentucky:
Kentucky has always said you can’t really make bourbon outside of Kentucky because it’s a combination of the barrels and the limestone-fed springs that give the [right] water. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.
(John Yarmuth, Kentucky Congressman)
Bourbon, like all whiskey, is made by distilling a mash of fermented grains. The rules are simple: it’s got to be made in America and at least 51% of the grain mixture must be corn (most are about 60-75% corn). The remaining grains in the mixture will usually be a selection of wheat, rye/malted rye and malted barley, in varying ratios.
These remaining grains are the first key factor in shaping a bourbon’s flavour. High wheat content generally makes for sweeter bourbon. Lots of rye gives the bourbon more spice and zest. You don’t usually get high barley bourbon, but when you do, expect a more malty, biscuity taste.
With rye whiskey on the other hand, at least 51% of the grain mixture is rye (not corn). The remainder is usually a mix of corn or malted barley. Rye whiskey tends to be significantly spicier (you’ll find nutmeg, clove and cinnamon flavours flying everywhere) and more savoury than bourbon, with a thinner feel on your inebriated tongue.
After distillation, both bourbon and rye are usually aged in new charred-oak barrels for at least two years (and normally between four and twelve years). The length of time spent in barrel (and the extent of charring on the inside of the barrel) is the second crucial element in crafting bourbon and rye’s flavour. It’s also this time in barrel that allows bourbon to take on its classic sepia/burnt orange hues and toasty taste.
That’s about as much technical nerdery as you need. If you want to geek out some more, there might be a place for you on my sofa.
Find the right bourbon for you
While rye is definitely on the up and absolutely essential for certain classic cocktails like the Sazerac, most of the American whiskey market – both in the US and abroad – revolves around bourbon.
Among the large bourbon offering, there are around 20 labels that can be found in bars all over the world. But how do you pick the right one for you? We’ve tasted all 20 big-brand bourbons and researched their mash bills (the blend of grains) to help you find bourbons you can enjoy:
Baker’s, Blanton’s, Booker’s, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve
Basil Hayden’s, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Eagle Rare, Four Roses, and Old Forester
Maker’s Mark, Old Fitzgerald, Old Rip Van Winkle, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller
Unlike most wine, a bourbon’s quality or complexity isn’t necessarily reduced by its sweetness (within reason). If you happen to like wheat-heavy recipes that offer a sweeter, rounder taste, rest assured that several of the most luxurious bourbons offer exactly that experience.
But not everyone loves sweet caramel notes. If, say, Scotch is more your thing, then your best way in to American whiskey is to go with a rye-heavy bourbon, or perhaps better still, a true rye whiskey.
However, whether it’s bourbon or rye, even the rounder styles need to have some spice on the finish to give the liquor the necessary grip. Without it, bourbon and rye can taste flabby and shapeless. Spice is to American whiskey what tannin is to red wine – if you go too creamy-smooth (the way many Riojas do), you lose the finer details and end up with a bit of a generic, unnatural product. The result is an amorphous bourbon, rye or wine. It’s the same experience as padded underpants or bras – good first impression, empty inside.
First steps into bourbon and rye
Within the Not Crazily Expensive range, we’d recommend Blanton’s and Elijah Craig (get the 12 year old version) on the bourbon front. Both offer the perfect balance of smoothness and spice and an all-round lush tasting experience.
We recommend starting with bourbon and then graduating to rye. But if you’d like to jump straight in, here’s two excellent rye whiskeys with a softer edge to get you started: Templeton Rye and Angel’s Envy Rye (which has an almost coconut-y edge from being aged in old rum barrels). You can enjoy them neat, with a cube of ice or diluted with a touch of room-temperature water.
If your starting point in whiskey is scotch, you’ll be struck by the comparative body and smoothness of Southern bourbon and rye. To make the transition, try Auchentoshan’s special line of American Oak-aged scotch. Pretty immense stuff that’ll get you prepped for a sip of the South while still reminding you of those Highlands flavours you love.
Bourbon and rye nerds
For you fellow geeks, we’ll be tasting a few niche bourbons and ryes on The Great Everything’s upcoming Podcast, and going into more detail about history, flavour profiles and what we love about these ludicrously luscious liquors and the southern states they come from.
In the meantime, there are many excellent books to guide you through the welcoming world of bourbon and rye. Our top pick would be American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide To The Nation’s Favourite Spirit by American whiskey lover Clay Risen. It provides an interesting, no-nonsense overview of bourbon and rye, where they come from and how they’re made. Most of the book, however, is an attractive, exhaustive set of colourful tasting notes on almost every major bourbon and rye out there. It’s concise, enjoyable and absurdly informative.
Happy drinking – and y’all take care till the Podcast is out!