An introduction to bourbon whiskey: America’s great spirit – Part 2

In Part 1, we covered the basics of what whiskey is, specifically bourbon, and what goes into making it. Now let’s talk about how to buy and drink it!

General Buying Guidance

Unlike a good single malt Scotch, which will set you back at least $40 – $60, and can run up into the hundreds (or even thousands) for something in the 18 – 30 year age range, bourbon is an incredible bargain. Some of the best bourbons in the world cost only $45 – $70, and there are many great buys to be had in the $20 – $30 range, which is where I recommend you do the bulk of your purchasing at first. There’s plenty of drinkable American whiskey below $20, including stuff you could mix or pass off on your unsophisticated friends for less than $15, but for just a few dollars more you can drink really tasty stuff, so why settle for less?

If you’re new to bourbon, stick to bottles labeled Kentucky Straight Bourbon (or Rye) Whiskey. This means the whiskey will adhere to the minimum standards for good bourbon, and will come from the state where it originated and was perfected.

No age statement on the bottle is fine, or any age statement 6 years or greater. Like Scotch, longer aging of bourbon is generally a sign of quality, but many bourbons today are losing their age statements to keep up with demand for their products, which means they’re likely including some younger whiskey than they did before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because a distilleries’ #1 priority for their product is to keep the flavor consistent.

Another reliable marker of durn good bourbon is the words Single Barrel. Unlike Small Batch, which is essentially meaningless, Single Barrel means that the whiskey was made from one distilling ‘season’ at one distillery, and came out of one particular barrel. The ‘Single Barrel’ version of a particular brand should be a particularly tasty barrel, which is why the master distiller has chosen it for a special bottling. For example, Evan Williams black label or the bottle-in-bond version are nothing special in my opinion, but Evan Williams Single Barrel is delicious stuff, and a fine value at around $20.

Recommendations (prices are pre-tax and represent good deals commonly found in California)

Bottom shelf/Entry-level: It’s worth tasting a couple of these after you’ve bought a few of the Middle Shelf options so that you can appreciate paying a little more for the jump in quality. Try at least one of the two best selling bourbons* in American: Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams black label or Jim Beam’s white label. Four Rose’s yellow label is actually quite tasty, and worth buying. Stay away from the really bottom shelf stuff including Ten High, Ancient Age, and Old Crow. (On the other hand, these are worth a taste for comparison, but just a taste: I wouldn’t want to be responsible for drinking a whole bottle…)

*Jack Daniel’s is the world’s best-selling American whiskey, and not bad at all, but technically it’s a Tennessee whiskey, even though process & taste-wise it’s practically identical to bourbon.

Middle Shelf: There is some great value here, and it’s where I spend most of my bourbon budget.

  • Sazerac’s Eagle Rare continues to be a steal at 10 years of age and $25. Smooth, sweet and reasonably complex, it’s both a crowd pleaser and a nice dram for the initiated.
  • From the same folks who brought you Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace‘s flagship bourbon is also very good ($20)
  • From the Beam people, Jim Beam Black Extra Aged is not bad, but Jim Beam Single Barrel if you can find it on sale is excellent. Knob Creek (100 pf) is also very good.
  • Evan Williams Single Barrel vintages are a favorite of mine (skip Evan Williams 1783, however), as is another fine product from Heaven Hill Distilleries, Elijah Craig.
  • The proprietary yeast used by Wild Turkey in their flagship Wild Turkey 101, or the milder and more-refined Russell’s Reserve 10 year, give their whiskies a distinctive dry spiciness that I enjoy.
  • Four Roses’ entry-level ‘yellow label’ is fine to start with, but look for Four Roses Single Barrel if you can find it on sale.
  • Old Forester 100 pf is perfectly quaffable, but the really good stuff is in their Top Shelf line listed below.
  • Try a ‘high rye’ whiskey like Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond or Old Grand Dad 114 pf. (Their entry-level Old Grand-Dad 80 pf is supposed to be inferior to the bottled-in-bond, but it’s been a while since I’ve had it, so I won’t pass judgement here.)
  • For rye whiskey, try Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond or Knob Creek Rye 100 pf if you can find them for less than $30

Top Shelf: These whiskies make a wonderful gift for a bourbon afficianado, or a treat for yourself (but don’t waste them on the uninitiated.) Move on to them after you’ve decided that bourbon really is your thing with the Middle Shelf purchases.

  • Kentucky Spirit from Wild Turkey if my favorite bourbon to date (around $45 – 50)
  • Booker’s is reputed to be excellent, and is made by Jim Beam.
  • Blanton’s is Buffalo Trace’s top shelf bourbon, and comes with a collectible plastic horsey on top…
  • Old Forester 1897 Bottled-in-Bond is delicious, and has the distinction of being my father’s favorite bourbon to date. They also make Old Forester 1920 and Old Forester Statesman, all of which are supposed to be very good. The entire fancy pants Old Forester collection is in the $40 – $60 range.

Tasting Whiskey

Tasting whiskey is similar to tasting wine & beer. Pour a small amount (0.5 oz) in a small, aroma-concentrating glass and stick your nose in there to smell it gently at first, and then more thoroughly. (Try to be as obnoxious as possible about it. You’ll enjoy the whiskey more that way.) Next, take a small sip and swirl it around your tongue before swallowing. You can also do the wine thing and breath in through your mouth while you do it, but don’t choke!

Next, dilute the whiskey down to around 30 – 35% abv (60 – 70 proof) with a little room temperature water. Cold water or ice won’t allow you to taste the whiskey quite as well. Use a pipette or small creamer pitcher to make sure you don’t pour in too much water too quickly. (Pipettes are perfect for hosting a tasting since everyone can have their own, and you can just toss them afterward.)

After diluting, take a bigger sip and hold the whiskey in your mouth longer this time, getting it all over your tongue, including the back and sides, before swallowing. Notice the initial flavor, the body or ‘mouth feel’, and after swallowing, notice which tastes linger and for how long. At the right strength, the alcohol should neither burn while it’s on your tongue nor be so watered down that it doesn’t have much flavor. Pour a little water in, sip, dilute more if needed, repeat until you get it to your taste. For me, I tend to keep diluting as I taste, perhaps because the alcohol on my tongue starts to accumulate as I keep sipping. You can always add more whiskey if you get too much water in there…

As bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery told me, “there’s a difference between tasting and drinking”, so once you’re done tasting, feel free to relax and just drink. I often find that I need to have a full glass of a single bourbon to really get to know it, which is a very convenient excuse that you can give to your wife. For good whiskies like those in the Middle and Top Shelves above, I recommend sticking to adding only a little still water, or if it’s warm out, a small piece of ice. But if you just wanna kick back and make your whiskey a ‘longer’ drink, go ahead and add that single large ice cube/sphere or even some club soda, but please, hold the Coca Cola.

Enjoy, and tell me about your favorite American whiskies in the comments!

 

An introduction to bourbon whiskey: America’s great spirit – Part 1

Bourbon whiskey is a uniquely American spirit that, along with my homebrewed cider, has become my go-to alcoholic beverage. If you just want a list of great bourbons to try, skip to my recommendations in Part 2.

What is whiskey?

Whiskey is any fermented grain beverage (aka beer) that has been distilled, which concentrates its alcohol and removes the sugars and many other flavors of the original product, but keeps enough of them to still have the distinctively sweet whiskey flavor. Fermented fruit beverages, such as wine or cider, that are distilled are called brandy or eau de vie. The latter is French for water of life, and that same phrase in Latin, ‘aqua vitae’, became uisce beatha in Gaelic, which eventually turned into the English word ‘whiskey’.

Similar to brandies like Cognac, whiskies today are almost always aged a few to several years in oak barrels. Oak happens to be an excellent wood for barreling spirits because it doesn’t leak or poison you, and aging in wood improves the flavor by contributing toasty, wood-y & vanilla-y notes. Charring the barrel, which is required for bourbon, also mellows and purifies the whiskey, removing harsher flavors over time, as well as adding unique flavors. Think of this charred inner layer of the barrel as a charcoal filter that also adds deliciousness. Mmmm….

Non-American Whiskies

Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whiskies are made principally of barley, which is also the primary grain in beer. Malt whiskies such as Single Malt Scotch are made entirely of malted barley, whereas blended whiskies can be made of neutral grain spirits (aka vodka, usually made from corn because it’s cheap) or other grain spirits. The ‘Single’ in Single Malt Scotch refers to the requirement that the spirit be made in one distillery over one distilling season (as opposed to combining whiskies from multiple distilleries or whiskies from different years of distillation.) Canadian whiskies are somewhat similar to American ones in the grains they use, especially their frequent use of rye, but they are often blended with tasteless neutral grain spirits, and thus not as characterful as American whiskies.

What is bourbon whiskey?

American whiskies include bourbon, Tennessee, rye, wheat, and malt whiskies. Depending on the style, they are made of corn (maize to those of you outside of the United States), rye, barley malt, and sometimes wheat. Bourbon is the most popular type of American whiskey, and it must be made in the US to be called bourbon (but not exclusively in Kentucky, where most whiskey comes from, which is a common misunderstanding.) Bourbon is required by law to be made of at least 51% corn, with the remainder being rye, wheat, or barley. In practice, most bourbon is made with 60 – 80% corn, 10 – 20% rye (sometimes substituted with wheat instead), and 10 – 12% malted barley. Malted grains convert the starches in the other grains into sugars during the beer brewing process so that the yeasts can turn those sugars into sweet, sweet alcohol.

Bourbon must also be aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Since these barrels can only be used once for bourbon, they are often sent to Scotland to be used to age Scotch afterwards. The fact that they are used barrels is why Scotch has a mellower wood flavor profile than bourbon.

There is no minimum aging period for plain ‘bourbon’, but most whiskey sold is ‘straight whiskey’ (or ‘straight bourbon whiskey’), and that must be aged for at least 2 years, and must display an age statement if it is aged for less than 4 years. So, if you see something like ‘Kentucky straight bourbon’ with no age statement such as Jim Beam white label, you’ll know it’s bourbon made in Kentucky that’s been aged for at least 4 years. (And probably exactly 4 years, since it’s expensive to age booze!)

You can think of bourbon as the ‘mostly corn’ American whiskey. Rye whiskey is essentially made by the same process, but with a minimum of 51% rye, and the remainder corn or barley. Wheat whiskey is 51% wheat, and so on.

The one quirky exception to this 51% rule is the rarely-found corn whiskey, which has to be at least 80% corn. Another quirk of corn whiskey is that it can be unaged, but if it is aged, it must not be aged in newly-charred barrels, but in used or uncharred oak barrels.

Bourbon must also be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (aka 160 proof), put into the barrels at no higher than 125 proof (62.5%), and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40%.) Distilling to a lower proof means that more flavor stays in the spirit, whereas neutral grain spirits like vodka are distilled to much higher proof (95%, say) which ensures that pretty much only alcohol is coming out of the still, and the majority of the grains’ flavor is left behind (sad.)

What determines the flavor of American whiskey?

Age and charred wood

The length of time spent aging in the newly-charred oak barrel makes a big difference in the flavor (and price) of bourbon. While Scotch can age for as much as 25 years or even longer in its used barrels, with some notable exceptions, bourbon generally gets too much wood flavor from the newly-charred barrels if left in them for more than 8 – 12 years. You rarely see any bourbon advertised as older than that.

Unlike wine or beer, distilled spirits do not really change once bottled, so you’re paying for the time spent in the wood, not the glass. Sugars and other flavoring compounds formed in wood when toasted and charred contribute to the vanilla, smoke, tobacco, oak, and some other flavors found in bourbon. Barrels can be charred to different levels of burned-ness, but most whiskey barrels are either a #3 or #4 char, which is the middle of the #1 – #7 scale used, #1 being the least charred.

Temperature variation

The environment that the whiskey is aged in also makes a big difference. Temperature change is key as hot summers and cool nights apparently press the whiskey in and out of the wood as the liquid expands and contracts, resulting is quicker/superior aging. Thus, the top and outer racks in the large whiskey barrel warehouses known as ‘rackhouses’ yield the most flavorful whiskey. This is why hot, dry places like Kentucky are well-suited to whiskey production whereas coastal location like Seattle or San Francisco are not. Plus, huge rackhouses require a big footprint, so cheap land is a plus.

Bourbon barrels aging in a Kentucky rackhouse

Grain

The type and proportion of grains used in the whiskey also make a difference, with corn giving a sweet flavor, which is either balanced with the spiciness of rye, or allowed to come through with the mellowness of wheat. Barley is a small component of bourbon, and thus probably doesn’t contribute too much flavor, but I would guess it’s a sweet flavor too like that of Irish whiskey. Rye whiskey is therefore generally ‘spicier’ and drier-tasting when compared to bourbon, and corn whiskey, which is often almost entirely corn, might be very simply sweet, but with little of the complexity found in bourbon or rye. Roughly 95% of the bourbons you find on the shelf will be corn + rye whiskies, and only a few, notably Maker’s Mark, Larceny, W.L. Weller products, and most famously, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, will be corn + wheat whiskies. Some distilleries have recently experimented with ‘four grain’ bourbons, meaning they contain corn, rye, barley, AND wheat.

Yeast

The yeasts used by the distillery to ferment the corn and rye-based beer also contributes a lot of flavor, and are closely guarded by each of the major distilleries. These yeasts have often been handed down over many years, similar to an heirloom sourdough or beer yeast. The distinctive spiciness present in Wild Turkey’s whiskies is apparently due to its spicy yeast variety.

Water

Alkaline water like that which flows through Kentucky’s limestone caverns contains minerals that make for good fermentation of the beer. Distilleries like to emphasize how important their local water is for the quality of the whiskey, but that could be more because it’s a hard-to-reproduce marketing gimmick than a factor of major flavor importance.

Skill

All of the above factors, and likely others as well, make for myriad differences in the finished product. A Master Distiller and his panel of expert tasters are required to test all the barrels as they age, sometimes moving them around the rackhouse to age in a desired way. These skilled folks are responsible for combing whiskey from various barrels, or choosing specific barrels for ‘Single Barrel’ bottlings, to achieve a consistent flavor profile for all of a distillery’s products.

Whiskey producers generally use the same ‘juice’ (distilled spirit) for multiple brands (e.g.: Heave Hill’s Evan Williams vs the same company’s Elijah Craig) or product ‘line extensions’ (e.g.: Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Single Barrel). Since the yeast, grains, distilling apparatus & process, and barrels are all the same for a given ‘juice’ from a distillery, it is the age and rackhouse location differences chosen by the Master Distiller, and whatever other magic is going on post-distillation, that are responsible for the significant differences still found within a company’s brands or line extensions. This bourbon family tree gives an excellent visual representation of this. (Print it out and keep it near your whiskey stash!)

Now that you know all about what’s in the bottle, let’s start drinking it!

 

The World’s Easiest Hard Apple Cider recipe

Welcome to making The World’s Easiest Hard Cider. It’s easy, cheap, tasty, and fun!

Two simple ingredients: yeast + juice

The only special ingredient you’ll need is brewing yeast. I recommend an English Ale yeast called Nottingham that I’ve been using for the past year with great results. You could also use a cider-specific yeast, or even a wine yeast (white or champagne), or get a couple of varieties and compare the results. Buy them off Amazon using the links above, or find a homebrew shop near you.

Next, head to your local grocery chain and buy four-to-ten 64 oz (half gallon) plastic jugs of juice. You could do a minimum of two half gallons if you wish, or use two-to-five 1 gallon (128 oz) jugs, but I like the 64 oz ones because they yield about five 12 oz bottles worth of cider, which is just perfect for sharing with a few friends. Definitely go for plastic: glass jugs could be used, but I don’t recommend it because you could carbonate for too long and risk shattering them.

What type of juice to use?

Safeway’s ‘regular’ brand of apple juice works very well, as does Tree Top’s. I found that both brands’ unfiltered Honey Crisp apple juice was particularly well-flavored. Grab one jug of each type and brand and see what you like best. Feel free to experiment with other fruit juices, especially pear, which is second in cider popularity, and post in the comments about your results. The one brand that did not make tasty cider for me was Mott’s, so you might want to avoid it.

Apple juice often goes on sale for as little as $2 per 64 oz jug (especially in late fall, presumably after harvest season), and can usually be found for $3 – $4, so don’t pay too much unless you really want to try some premium juice, and stock up when it’s cheap! At $2.50 per 64 oz, your cider will only cost you 50 cents per 12 oz bottle.

Method

First-timer steps

The first time you do this you will be using your yeast packet and will need to do a couple of extra steps. The #1 thing to be concerned about when you brew alcohol is sanitation. You don’t want any stray bacteria or wild yeasts to reproduce in your cider and give it weird flavors (it won’t hurt you though, so not a big deal if it happens: just dump it out and start over.)

Take something heat-resistant with a pour spout like an 8 oz glass Pyrex measuring cup and sanitize it by either pouring boiling water into it until it’s overflowing (do this in your sink), or fill it to the brim and microwave it until it boils. (Be very careful not to superheat the water in the microwave and have it boil over on you when you touch it! Wait for it to boil while you’re microwaving, and then turn off the microwave.)

Add a metal spoon to the Pyrex cup to sanitize it also, and let cup and spoon sit for 5 minutes in the boiled water. Carefully dump the water out, leaving the spoon in the cup. Fill the cup up with about 6 ounces of 110 F (43 C) water straight from your tap (water from the tap is sanitized). You can either leave a thermometer in your boiling water along with the spoon to sanitize it also, and then measure the temp precisely, or just put your finger under the tap and use the water once it feels very warm/a bit hot on your finger, but not at all painful. (It’s better to err on the side of too cool than too hot, because water significantly above 110 F can harm or kill your yeast.)

Next, rinse off your yeast packet under the tap, just to be safe, and then open it with your clean hands and pour the powdered granules into the warm water in your measuring cup. Let them sit on the surface without stirring for 5 or 10 minutes, and then stir them in gently with your sanitized spoon until they’ve dissolved. Jump down to aerating and adding the yeast.

After you’ve already done this once and want to re-use the yeast in a jug

The best part about this method is that you can reuse your old yeast as many times as you want in future batches. All you need to do is be ready with more unfermented, unopened juice by the time you finish drinking your hard cider, so I always keep a few half gallons on hand. As soon as you’ve poured off the last of the good stuff from a jug of your cider, you should have a hard-packed layer of yeast stuck on the bottom. Open a new jug of your fresh juice and pour off about 4 – 6 oz into the old jug and slosh it around to get all that yeast off the bottom and into the liquid, then continue following the instructions below in the next section.

Your cider yeast is like a reusable sourdough starter. I’ve been using my initial Nottingham yeast for over a year now, having made several gallons of cider with it, and it’s still going strong. I’ve even given empty containers to friends and family so that they could start their own without having to buy yeast.

Troubleshooting: If you ever get a batch of cider that tastes bad (usually sour), then it might’ve gotten contaminated with wild yeasts or lactobacillus bacteria (the same kind that makes yogurt tangy.) In this case, just don’t reuse that yeast (and dump the cider, or drink it if you don’t mind it!), and hopefully you have another jug that has uncontaminated yeast. If not, just start over with a fresh packet of yeast.

Aerating and adding the yeast

Set your yeast slurry to one side. Open each of your jugs of fresh juice with clean hands and pour off about 4 – 6 oz of juice from each into a mason jar to do with it as you wish. This is to create enough air space in each jug for the yeast to foam up during fermentation without overflowing.

Next, aerate your fresh juice by recapping the jugs and shaking them vigorously for about 10 seconds. This will oxygenate your juice so that your yeast will have an easier time replicating in it. Then, unscrew the caps again and carefully pour out your yeast slurry (shake it once more to mix evenly) in equal parts into each jug. Take your inoculated jugs to a dark/dim part of your house that’s as close to 64 – 68 F as possible. I’ve made cider anywhere from 62 – 78 F, and it always came out fine, so don’t worry too much about the temperature. Put a towel under your jugs, or set them in a plastic or cardboard container in case any juice spills over during fermentation. Then, leave the caps unsealed just barely, like 1/4 – 1/2 turn from being sealed, so that the CO2 gas that builds up during fermentation can escape.

Fermentation and when to drink your cider

As long as your fermentation gets off to a good start, by which I mean you should see bubbling activity within 12 – 24 hours, the CO2 pressure should keep any bacteria from getting in. I’ve done this many times and haven’t yet had a single batch get contaminated. Godspeed!

Let the cider ferment for 2 weeks, and then seal the caps, and let it go another day or two with the cap sealed until the jugs are bulged out somewhat with carbonation. Release the pressure by unscrewing the cap and getting the jug back down to normal size, then chill in the refrigerator with the cap sealed, and then taste it once it’s cold!

If it’s too sweet for your taste, you can crack the cap and let it go a few more days or another week at room temperature again. If it’s too dry for your liking, try your next batch after only 1 week instead, and add some fresh juice to sweeten up this batch. The warmer your house is the faster it will ferment. Play around until you find the time + temperature combo that produces the flavor you like best.

If the cider isn’t carbonated enough, just leave it in the fridge with the cap on and check once a day or two. Your cider will vary in alcohol percentage from about 4 – 6% depending on how long you let it ferment. The sweeter it is the lower the alcohol because not all the sugar has been converted into booze; the driest cider will be the most alcoholic.

Plastic is very forgiving even if you over-carbonate a bit, but do crack the cap if you notice your jug bulging a lot to let out the pressure if you intend to keep it sealed in the fridge long-term. I have had a plastic jug crack under pressure on me while transporting it in a hot car over a 14 hour drive…

If you won’t be ready to drink the cider in 2 weeks, you can ferment it for a few days or 1 week and then seal it up and keep it in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. I do this if I’m going to be out of town for a week and want to have some ready for when I get back. Keep an eye on the jug bulging and crack as needed in the fridge, since your yeast will still work, just more slowly, when cold.

Drinking your cider, and what to do with the yeast at the bottom

You’ll notice when your cider has finished fermenting the yeast has, hopefully, settled down at the bottom into a hard packed layer. When serving your chilled, sparkling cider, pour it off gently to avoid disturbing the yeast, and never shake the jug. You could also transfer it into a pitcher or clean jug before serving. Reuse the yeast in your empty jug immediately (to avoid the chance of contamination) as described above to make more cider (and more, and more, and more…!)

This cider comes out fairly clean and simple in flavor, with a nice apple flavor, especially if you use Honeycrisp juice. It won’t have that funky complexity of the great French ciders, but this lazy man’s cider can hold its own with many of the micro- or macrobrewed US and English ciders that you can find in stores, and which I often find too sweet and cloying.

I like my cider pretty cold, just slightly off-dry, and with a lot of bubbles. If you or some of your guests like it sweet, leave one batch at room temp for 2 weeks, but refrigerate another couple of jugs after only 1 week to have both a drier and sweeter version. You can even mix the two versions to taste, or add back fresh juice to a dry cider for more sweetness and apple flavor (although it will mean less bubbles.) The cider is best drunk right after opening the jug. Over time a half-empty jug will lose a carbonation and the flavor will depreciate as its exposed to air, but it’ll stay fresh and tasty for at least a few days in the fridge half-empty.

Serving your cider

If you want to get fancy and do things up Breton-style, serve your cider in earthenware mugs/bowls with buckwheat crepes (known as galettes) like they do in the north of France. Cider is a great drink in spring, summer, or fall (mix it with bourbon in winter), and goes very well with food, especially lunch or brunch fare.

Enjoy, and let me know how yours turns out!