Bourbon is having a revival.
If Hali Haught hadn’t moved to Raleigh, the bourbon bar at the Oak, kitchen & bourbon bar on Lake Boone wouldn’t exist.
“We knew we wanted the Oak to have a great cocktail bar, but Hali convinced me and my partner and brother Justin that bourbon wasn’t just trendy,” says JMR Kitchens owner Ryan Riek.
Today, Haught is the general manager, and time is proving her right. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys have outsold all liquors, even vodka, for the last two years, making it a $3 billion business. In an age of wanting the newest, most improved version of everything, why is our go-to drink over 225 years old?
Haught believes bourbon drinkers like the taste and flavor of bourbon but says it’s more than that.
“It’s all about the story, and every bourbon has a story with real history.”
The birth of bourbon is a deliciously ironic tale of an inventor who was a Baptist minister by day and distiller by night—Elijah Craig. He is credited with inventing bourbon in 1789, but what he really invented was the process of aging corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. The result was a somewhat sweeter and smokier tasting alcohol.
Bourbon is nowhere near as complex as wine, or even scotch, but there are a few things you should know.
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. By law, for a whiskey to be bourbon it must be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. It must be made in the U.S. and bottled at 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume) or higher. It can be made anywhere, but 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky.
Ordering bourbon can be intimidating for a newcomer. Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association shared this advice.
“Ask the bartender to suggest a small-batch, low-proof bourbon… such as Basil Hayden or Four Roses,” says Gregory. He suggests working your way up to a single-barrel bourbon that’s a bit higher in proof such as Knob Creek and Blanton’s. “Then you’ll be ready to try a barrel-strength bourbon with 120 to 130 or more proof like Booker’s by Jim Beam or Stagg Jr.”
When ordering, be careful not to throw around cocktail terms like “neat” unless you know what they mean. You could end up with a drink you don’t want. For a bourbon without ice or mixer, order it “neat;” for water and ice, order it “on the rocks.”
The Oak’s bourbon experience goes beyond its selection of 60 to 70 bottles.
• Adopt-a-Barrel Program. Offers bourbon drinkers the chance to re-age
bourbon in a 2-liter barrel in the restaurant for a fee. It’s so successful, there’s a long waiting list; it seems no one wants to give up their barrel.
• Bourbon Dinners. Intimate, four-course meal paired with unique bourbons.
• Bourbon & Bites. Tastings on select Saturday afternoons include a house-aged bourbon Old Fashioned, a tasting of select bourbons and chef-paired bites.
Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey: Bottled from one barrel only. They are entirely unique, meaning each barrel has its own temperature and character.
Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbons made from a few select barrels married together for consistency.
Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Whiskey aged for at least 2 years in brand-new charred barrel – that means barrels can be used only once for bourbon. After that they’re shipped to Mexico for aging tequila or to Scotland for aging Scotch.
In the 50 Best Bars issue, RM readers Voted on the 5 Best Whiskey/Lounge Bars
Visit raleighmag.com/best-bars for the complete list.