September is National Bourbon Heritage Month. In order to fulfill our patriotic duties, Amusespot is presenting a number of articles about our “Native Spirit.” What better way to celebrate than to invite a few friends over for a tasting?
Bobby Gleason, Master Mixologist at Beam (and in his own right) recently showed us the ropes for a tasting. This blog post gives some background on bourbon and enough details to do a tasting flight with (our pal) Jim Beam and a few of his friends.
A spirit unique to the United States, Bourbon is governed by fairly strict rules. To be considered bourbon, the following must apply:
- Made in the United States
- At least 51% corn mash bill (the grain mixture that is to be fermented)
- Aged in Charred New Oak barrels.
There are a number of other particulars related to ABV (alcohol by volume) in regards to aging and bottling. For tasting purposes, however, let’s keep this simple. Variation in flavor can generally be related to composition of the mash bill, char of the barrel, and aging & conditions (such as temperature) during the aging process. If the label says ‘Blended,’ however, it can contain additives - such as coloring and flavoring.
What’s the best bourbon? The one you like.
What makes the best bourbon even better? Sharing it with a friend, of course.
For tasting we would suggest small pours. If the alcohol content is too high for your nose, add a few drops of water. Allow the bourbon to sit in your mouth. Keep your mouth slightly open when you taste. Spit or swallow. Your choice.
For the tasting we will look at 4 different styles of bourbons:
Traditional: Jim Beam Black
High Rye: Basil Hayden
Wheated: Makers Mark
Aged: Knob Creek
Jim Beam Black is a good traditional style bourbon to start off with. With about 65% corn in the mashbill and close to equal parts rye & barley you get a very nice caramel flavor with spice. At 86 proof it shouldn’t be too hot. Swish a bit. You are tasting one of the best bourbons in the world, winner of the Bourbon Trophy at the 2016 International Wine & Spirit Competition.
Basil Hayden bourbon is a good example of adding more rye to the mash bill. The mash bill, as previously stated, is the mixture of grains that are fermented. Corn is the primary ingredient in any bourbon’s mash bill. That’s the rule. So the stuff that comes immediately off the still (called “white dog”) tastes like buttered popcorn. Really. Rye adds a level of spiciness to that sweet popcorn flavor. Hayden is bottled at 80 proof, so it will be a bit lighter that the Jim Beam Black as well.
Maker’s Mark is another example of a variation in a mash bill. Maker’s is a wheated bourbon. This means that wheat has been added to the mash bill. The result is a very easy drinking bourbon. You might notice a bit more sweet taste towards the front of your palate.
Knob Creek is a longer aged traditional mash bourbon with about 9 years in the casks. Those extra years allow the bourbon to enter and exit the wood char and pick up additional flavor characteristics and color. Longer time on the racks means more evaporation (the ‘Devil’s Cut) and concentration of the liquor. The result? A fairly durable and tasty bourbon with large oakiness tempered with sweetness. At 100 proof bottling it puts a bit of hair on your chest too. Best Bourbon, 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Just for fun:
There has been tremendous growth in the premium bourbon category- largely due to more people looking for new experiences and more people drinking bourbon than ever. Scotch has long been aged in a second used cask (called ‘finishing’) that imparts additional flavor. Bourbon bottlers are now doing the same, generally using sherry or port barrels. We tried a bit of the Beam Distillers Masterpiece, which is finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. The result? Very tasty.
The bottles will set you back anywhere from $200-$300, however, and they are tough to find. In a pinch try Angel’s Envy, which is port cask finished- $60-$80 with a bit better distribution.
What glasses to use:
Generally, a glass is a glass is a glass. Meaning don’t fret about it. I would not suggest glasses that are very narrow at the top since this will concentrate the alcohol. in the end we are here for the whiskey and not wasting time debating about how far our pinkies should be in the air. Don't worry about seeming pretentious when describing a flavor. Your taste is your taste, after all. If a bourbon tastes like 'warm cotton candy on a summer's eve,' then it probably does.
If you want to invest in some glassware I would strongly urge the Neat or Ultimate Spirits Glass, which has become the primary tasting glass for many of the judging competitions, including San Francisco. Odd looking, the glass ‘blows off’ a good portion of the alcohol, allowing you to smell (and taste) more of the whiskey (or rum, or tequila, etc). The box set of 2 is very reasonably priced.
More traditional glassware includes the Glencairn-style glasses, which have been endorsed by the Scotch Whisky Association. Old fashioned tumblers are also great.
Now go Amuse yourself for a while. Enjoy!