By John Trump
Strike up a conversation about the history of bourbon and expect to hear any number of whiskey-soaked yarns, myths and tales. I’ve done the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and visited some 40 distilleries across North Carolina while writing my book, “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State (Blair 2017).” The history of spirits, and bourbon specifically, is colorful and complex, immersed in legend and lore. It is, in fact, a history we can touch, taste and smell. Though all bourbon must include at least 51 percent corn, some contains more rye, which can produce a pepper-like finish. Other distillers use more wheat, which typically results in a sweeter whiskey. Some bourbons are finished with staves or in separate casks, which results in the more pronounced notes of oak, caramel and vanilla.
Here are some of my favorite examples of affordable and available bourbons, separating the offerings among the spicier, sweeter and woodier.
Booker’s, a product of the Jim Beam distillery, is bottled at cask-strength, meaning it’s uncut and unfiltered and drinks around 126 proof. It’s a big and bold, the characteristic vanilla and caramel out front and loudly pronounced. Everything a great bourbon should be. (About $74).
Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, produces just a few offerings, including a 90-proof Small Batch, which hints of pepper and ripe fruit and cruises across the palate. (About $37).
This fantastic single-barrel bourbon, bottled at 101-proof, is surprisingly sweet, but in a really good way. Allow it to linger on the tongue and savor the notes of berries, orange peel and honey. It’s tough to find in North Carolina, but spend the $60 or so when you do.
Another Beam product, 80-proof Basil Hayden’s is the standard introductory
bourbon. Soft and creamy with just a tiny bite at the end, it’s the smoothest sipper going. (About $50).
There’s little doubt this 90-proof bourbon spent time in a barrel. Two barrels, in fact. The bourbon ages in traditional American white oak and is transferred to second barrel, which has been deeply toasted and lightly charred. The aging process is evident in the whiskey, which tastes of sweet raisins and bright citrus. (About $57).
Maker’s Mark is noted for its soft, high-wheat bourbon. The distillery enhances that recipe in Maker’s 46, which spends more time in the barrel than the flagship bourbon and is finished in a cask containing French oak staves, resulting it flavors of nuts, oak and toast. (About $40).