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.

Bottoms up!

(photo: whisky glass from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Steve says:

    “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.”

    That is sophistry. The only “quality guidelines” that are of any importance are that the customer is pleased. Regardless of what meddling busy-body control-freak regs are in place, a business or product is going to succeed or fail based on whether or not people (1) want the product/service of the business; (2) that want is valued more than the price of the product/service of the business. Moreover, every reg has a massive cost, i.e., that which does not occur because of the reg. For example, there may be some variation of the recipe for bourbon that is even better, but would not comply with the stupid reg.

  2. Aaron Street Aaron Street says:

    Don’t get me wrong; I love a good Bourbon Old Fashioned and have a number of craft Bourbons in my cabinet, but for the money I’ll buy Glenfiddich 15-year every time.

  3. Avatar DRB says:

    Just picked up a bottle of Four Roses – Small batch this evening. Cheers.

  4. Avatar Julie says:

    Nicely timed article. I recently visited the Maker’s Mark distillery in Kentucky and learned all about the guidelines for bourbon whiskey. If you’re a bourbon enthusiast, you should consider a trip to that area of the country. Maybe consider a second career as a tour guide.

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