Bourbon, that caramel-colored brown liquor, with the unmistakable nose and palate of smoke, vanilla, caramel and molasses, is a bona fide crowd pleaser. The distinctly American grain spirit must be at least 80 proof and 51% corn to be considered a real bourbon and must be aged in American new oak barrels. And no, it doesn’t have to only come from Kentucky.
But despite the notions that brown liquors are hard to drink or only for very specific palates, many bourbons go down fairly easily. Sweet and smooth, bourbon is equally at home in cocktails (hot or cold) as it is being drunk straight. It is no longer just the post-prandial predilection of choice for people of a certain age: it’s gaining traction amongst the younger set—and as a seasonless and daily drinker—as time wears on.
Great Bourbons for Sipping Straight
Bourbon is the key actor in Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, of course, where they enjoy the help of a supporting cast of sugar, vermouth, fruits and so on. These are classic cocktails that are possibly more popular now than ever.
Drinking a bourbon straight, without any mixers, but with a rock or two, or a splash of spring water, is how to really appreciate the flavor nuances of the spirit.
The bourbons highlighted below hit all the high notes, and are some of the best examples for sipping straight, according to our Spirits Reviewer, Kara Newman.
This is a blend of three straight bourbons finished separately in pear brandy, Jamaican rum and Sicilian amaro casks. The result is a kaleidoscope of fruit: orange peel, dried apricot and lychee, drying to coconut and oak. Adding water releases eggnog-like spices cinnamon, nutmeg and a hint of almond. 95 Points — Kara Newman$96 Total Wine & More
Barrell Bourbon Batch 031 Cask Strength
Nuanced vanilla and tropical fruit aromas introduce this blend of straight bourbons, aged from 6–16 years. The palate opens with brown sugar and mouthwateringly savory spices, cayenne and clove. Adding water dials in an espresso note, while a fleeting hint of pineapple emerges on the exhale. 97 Points — K.N.$89 Total Wine & More
Old Fitzgerald 11 Years Old Bourbon
Concentrated caramel tinged with toffee and espresso leads the nose. The bold palate offers more of the same, though a splash of water adjusts the flavor to a more dry, leathery tone, finishing long with ginger, black pepper and tobacco highlights. Bottled in Bond. Fall 2021 Edition. 97 Points — K.N.$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Is Bourbon a Whiskey?
A discussion of which bourbons are best to sip straight starts with a definition of bourbon itself.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey. This distilled spirit was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, hence the name. Government regulations state that it must be made from a minimum of 51% corn and must be aged in a new barrel. Other whiskies, are made primarily from other grains including barley, wheat and rye, and often use the spelling of whisky.
What Does Bourbon Taste Like?
A charred American oak barrel brings out a perceived sweetness in bourbon with some caramel-like tones. You can also taste some spice notes and vanilla in most bourbons.
The range of flavors can vary between distilleries based on the ingredient components, the char level of the barrels and the time spent in barrels. Contrary to popular belief, bourbons can be made outside of Kentucky. Some of our highest rated have come from outside of the state. Bourbon is now distilled throughout the country.
How Do You Make Bourbon?
Bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn, as determined by the American Bourbon Association. The other grains, usually rye, wheat or barley, can come in at any percentage. After the grains are chosen, the yeast is added to commence the fermentation process. Once the fermentation process is finished, the mixture is strained to separate out any dregs or solids left behind, leaving only pure liquid.
Distillation comes next, which involves heating the liquid and creating a vapor from it, which makes it much more alcoholic. Distillation is also done twice, once in a beer still and the second in a copper pot still to take away any impurities in the liquid. Then it’s aged at least two years in American oak barrels, filtered and bottled.
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Published: November 4, 2022