By Fred Minnick
BOURBON IS AMERICA’S most alluring
spirit, glimmering with russet hues and offering a vanilla and caramel bouquet of aromas.
It’s also as American as baseball and apple pie.
Fifty years ago, Congress declared bourbon to be distinctive to the United States,
effectively giving it geographic labeling protection from other countries, such as Mexico,
which had a distillery selling “bourbon” at
discounted prices until the early 1960s.
Nowadays, the U.S. federal law defines bourbon as whiskey produced in the U.S., not
exceeding 80 percent alcohol by volume (160
proof), from a fermented mash of not less
than 51 percent corn and stored at not more
than 62. 5 percent alcohol by volume (125
proof) in charred new oak containers.
But bourbon is so much more than a legal
definition. With 95 percent of it made in
Kentucky, its roots are buried in the Bluegrass
State, but many smaller distillers, such as
Finger Lakes Distillery in New York and
Balcones in Waco, Texas, are also making
No matter where it’s made, bourbon is
influenced by five sources of flavor: grain,
water, fermentation methods, distillation and
maturation. The two most identifiable flavor
contributors are grains and maturation.
Much as corn syrup sweetens countless
candy bars, corn gives bourbon its caramel
and vanilla base. In what’s called the mash
bill, corn is mixed with the common secondary grains wheat and rye.
Bourbons with wheat as the secondary
grain are referred to as wheated bourbons, such
as Maker’s Mark. Just as wheat bread yields a
different flavor profile than rye bread, wheated
bourbons taste slightly sweeter and less spicy
than bourbons using heavy doses of rye.
Higher-rye bourbons include Blanton’s,
Woodford Reserve and Bulleit. These bourbons typically warm the palate with fun notes
of cinnamon and baking spices.
When hosting a private tasting class, I ask
the crowd to pick a flavor: caramel or cinnamon. If they prefer caramel, I start them with
wheated bourbon, usually Maker’s Mark,
because wheated bourbons’ caramel notes
tend to be stronger. For cinnamon lovers, I
recommend the higher-rye bourbons, especially Bulleit and Woodford Reserve, because,
in addition to the caramel and vanilla, the
cinnamon gracefully expresses itself.
After bourbon makers put the clear distillate (it looks like vodka) into a new charred oak
barrel, the wood interacts with the liquid,
chemically changing its color and filtering out
unwanted flavors. The wood also gives bourbon the majority of its flavor, including smoke,
coconut, coffee and mocha notes.
As the bourbon sits in the barrel, about 3
to 5 percent is lost every year to evaporation,
a process referred to as the “angels’ share.” If
the barrel has a leak, more than 15 percent a
year could be lost until the leak is filled.
In the best-case scenario, the average barrel loses about half of its whiskey before bottling. In the worst-case scenario, the barrel
completely leaks all of the precious whiskey.
Thank goodness leaky barrels are rare, but
bourbon makers must take the angels’ share
into account when forecasting demand.
The bourbon you buy today was conceived several years ago. In the case of bourbons at Costco, they are anywhere from four
to 12 years old. Most bourbons don’t carry age
statements on the label, but older doesn’t
always mean better. Maker’s Mark averages
six years old and Kirkland Signature™ Small
Batch Bourbon ages seven years; both consistently win palates over older bourbons.
As for which one you’ll like, well, you’ll
have to taste to find out. I recommend tasting
them all. Responsibly, of course. C
Fred Minnick is the “bourbon authority” for
the Kentucky Derby Museum and author of
Whiskey Women (Potomac Books, 2013;
Bourbon: A fine
drink for the ages
The Costco Connection
Costco carries a variety of fine
bourbon, including;Kirkland Signature
Small Batch Bourbon, in;select;
warehouses where spirits are
available. For a list of locations,
see the “Beer, Wine & Spirits
Locator” on Costco.com (click
“The Costco Connection,”
then “Resources” at
the bottom of the
availability;will vary by
As for which one
you’ll like, well,
you’ll have to
taste to find out.