Part of the fun in developing your palate includes working your way up the adult-beverages ladder. I started out drinking cheap beer (proudly brewed in my home state of Wisconsin) and Rum and Coke. I’ve since moved up to craft beer (although inexpensive “adjunct” beer is in my fridge too), red wine (with some white wine in the Summer), and spirits, also known as “hard liquor.”
Unlike beer and wine, spirits are endlessly flexible, as they can be enjoyed alone (no refrigeration needed), on ice, or as the foundation for an endless variety of cocktails.
With spirits, as with most food and drink, you generally get what you pay for. But there’s a wonderful exception to that rule: Bourbon.
One reason to love regulation
How does Bourbon taste? A review of Knob Creek, my favorite top-shelf Bourbon, described it this way:
Bright pale amber color. Aromas of buttery nut brittle, cherry cola, peppery spices, creme brulee and faint incense with a rich, vibrant fruity full body and a long, warming dried fruit chutney, anise, and spice finish.
So Bourbon tastes great. But it’s also the best value in spirits because even inexpensive Bourbon is good. Why? The same reason lots of us have jobs as lawyers: federal regulation. (“USA! USA!”) But also because of Bourbon’s long and uniquely American history, which is widely misunderstood.
But this much is indisputed: Federal law requires that Bourbon labeled as “Straight” (the most popular type) must:
- be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn (it’s usually 65-75%, with the rest varying by maker, often including rye, barley, or wheat);
- be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years (and if aged fewer than four years the label must list the aging period);
- not contain added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits.
There is no “bad” bourbon
These federal laws ensure that when you buy Straight Bourbon, you know you are getting something that meets a baseline of quality. Let’s face it, there are a lot of bottles in any liquor store that don’t have to meet any quality guidelines at all. With Straight Bourbon, even the bottom-shelf bottles are at least okay, and they get better as you go up. I’ve tried Bourbon from up and down the shelves and I’ve never been disappointed, only pleased to varying degrees. You can get a bottle of Straight Bourbon for less than 15 bucks. And for a lawyer not drawing the kind of salary one might have hoped for, that’s a plus.
I drink Straight Bourbon neat and on the rocks, but my favorite way to enjoy it is my own painstakingly-developed stripped-down Bourbon Old Fashioned:
In a lowball glass, mix, by gently swirling:
2 Shakes Angostura Bitters
1/2 teaspoon Collins Cherry Cocktail Syrup (or Maraschino Cherry “juice”)
1.5 oz. Straight Bourbon
Fill glass with ice, add water, stir gently.
In addition to protecting its quality, Congress also declared Bourbon America’s Official Spirit. This year, I know it will help me find the humor in our beloved electoral process.
(photo: whisky glass from Shutterstock)