September is Bourbon Heritage Month, and since October is approaching in a hurry, there's precious little time left to celebrate the heady elixir.
Bourbon is a form of whiskey and, by act of Congress, America's native spirit. But not every barrel of American-made whiskey qualifies as bourbon. No, to earn that moniker every drop must maintain a very specific list of qualities. Not only must it be made of a combination of grains that contains at least 51 percent corn, but it can contain neither coloring nor flavoring and must be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. On top of all that, it has to be aged for a minimum of two years. Contrary to popular opinion, however, it doesn't have to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon, though it absolutely does in order to be called Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
All these restrictions are there for one reason – to make sure the bourbon name always stands for something. Sure, the Canadians, Irish and Scotch have their own whiskies, but none of them can lay claim to bourbon. And a good bourbon can stand tall against any peat-coated single-malt in the world. Warm and rich, with caramel, oak, vanilla, spice and even fruit flavors competing for attention on the tongue, a quality bourbon is a uniquely American experience. And because we have to savor these last fleeting days of the month devoted to our native spirit, it's well worth digging a little deeper than usual into your wallet to pick up a bottle of the good stuff, even in these brutal economic times. Buying American rarely tastes so good.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon – Once a year, Old Forester releases its Birthday Bourbon to celebrate the birth of Brown-Foreman and Old Forester founder George Garvin Brown. This year's bottling dates from 1997 – giving it almost 13 years in cask to age and mellow. That's a huge amount of time for most spirits, and all too rare for most bourbons. Old Forester mixes in a hefty dose of rye along with its corn base, so up front this is a heavily spiced and oaky sip. But the finish is amazingly mellow, with chocolate, candy and the caramel and honey flavors bourbon is known for. With that sort of easy-drinking character, it's surprising to find the bottle was capped at 95-proof. It's even more surprising after downing a second glass, which is all too easy.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel – Most bourbon brands have a character that their bottlings are known for. And they hew closely to it by mixing barrels of bourbon until it tastes exactly as it's supposed to. But if you try individual barrels from the same vintage, they may taste dramatically different, thanks to subtle differences in the temperature in that part of the warehouse, the char of the barrel, and any number of other factors. This 101 proof Wild Turkey bottling is chosen from specific barrels - each called out on the label - and has character in spades. It has all the spice Wild Turkey is known for but includes some great citrus character along with a solid slug of oak. The whiskey eases into a long languid finish with cinnamon and a rich mouth feel that sticks with you long after the last puff of that cigar that seemed so appropriate to light up with the first sip.
Noah's Mill Genuine Bourbon Whiskey – A smaller distiller with a slightly gentler price tag than some of the others in the tasting, Noah's Mill has a ton of character – maybe a bit too much for some. It's a big whiskey, with a sweet vanilla-citrus kick up front and a heavy charred oak quality to it. But under all those tannins its 15 years of aging has mellowed it quite a bit. Bottled at 114 proof, this is a whiskey that benefits from a liberal dose of water in the glass. Even diluted it's heavy, almost syrupy, with the vanilla notes prevalent throughout. Rich caramel and almond elements gradually cut through the heat and spice. A great, albeit challenging, pick if you can handle some serious oak in your bourbon, but definitely not a good bottle as an introduction to bourbon.
Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey – Proving that Yankees can get in on the bourbon game, albeit with a slightly different take on the traditional American whiskey, Tuthilltown Spirits mixes a corn base with all three of the other traditional American grains used in spirits – rye, wheat and malted barley. There's a whole lot going on in this bottle. It's a young whiskey so it hasn't had a chance to mellow the characteristics of the grains it's made of. The corn brings an almost maple sweetness to the table, with the rye providing a rich dose of spice. The whole thing blossoms into a tart and grassy mouthful, with some intriguing peppery notes and a sweet-tart balance and creamy mouthful many older whiskeys never manage. It’s worth a splurge despite being made north of the Mason-Dixon line, and at 92-proof it'll only take a couple glasses to forget its less than traditional pedigree.