By Lou Bustamante
Of all spirits, Bourbon was my first true love. It was the first one that I learned to drink alone in a glass with little more than a touch of water or an ice cube. It's also my favorite on cold evenings or after a large meal—a glass of Bourbon by the fireplace is equal parts sophistication and relaxation. Although a sudden spike in demand for the spirit has resulted in shortages of certain brands and caused breathless panic from collectors and shopkeepers (see page 14), I've simply seen this as an opportunity to try new ones. Here are some of my new favorites.
Jim Beam Ghost White Whiskey
While I've always enjoyed the idea of new-make whiskey, too often it tastes like under-seasoned soup to me, but Jim Beam has managed to do something interesting by aging Ghost White Whiskey for a year in American oak barrels. The result is light and clean enough that your vodka-drinking friends might be convinced to give it a try. It shows vanilla fragrance over sweet grain and Asian pear flavors, some white pepper notes giving it zip.
Stagg Jr. Bourbon Whiskey
Buffalo Trace's annual release of George T. Stagg Bourbon Whiskey is for those who prefer their liquor older, uncut and unfiltered, with big, bold flavors from the 15 or so years spent in barrel. Stagg Jr. is younger, with only about eight years in barrel, less intense and more affordable than its pa. But don't let the name fool you: Stagg Jr. is to George T. Stagg what Bam-Bam is to Barney Rubble. This first release is higher in proof than senior, and the heritage and personality are there, with a little bit of punk rock: plenty of rye spice from the mashbill, vanilla, less oak yet plenty of dry spice aromas. Cut it with water and take a sip: It flexes with citrus, apple and wood-roasted coffee flavors. A gorgeous Bourbon made even better by the price, this is a great buy for new and old Bourbon fans alike.
Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
The 2013 release of master distiller Jim Rutledge's Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon celebrates the distillery's 125th anniversary. It's a marriage of three recipes with three different ages: an 18-year-old whiskey (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% barley), a 13-year-old with the same mashbill and a 13-year-old that is higher in corn, lower in rye. Bottled unfiltered and uncut, the blend has an exuberance that's unexpected from a whiskey this old. It's very fruity, almost like cantaloupe and berries, with a lush sweetness that is counterbalanced by just enough oak to add vanilla and spice. Concentrated flavors and a high proof necessitate dilution, but with something this nice, go simple: Add a large chunk of ice and enjoy the way the flavors evolve and shift over time.
Michter's Sour Mash Whiskey
There hasn't been a Michter's distillery for some time now, until this new one recently sprang to life. That means the whiskey in the bottle comes from other producers, but it doesn't make the whiskey inside Mitcher's Sour Mash Whiskey any less delicious. Or mysterious. There is no age statement or mashbill to glean an indication of what it's made from, but the taste suggests it's a mix of Bourbon and rye, both of them taking dynamic turns providing flavors and aromas. Spicy and peppery, yet sweet with cherry and an almost mulled-cider quality, it's a thing all its own, blazing its own path, hopefully into a Manhattan cocktail near you.
1776 James E. Pepper Bourbon & Rye Whiskies
James E. Pepper is an iconic brand in Bourbon history, one of the most popular until the mid-twentieth century. Now Georgetown Trading Co. has relaunched it, working with Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. They've derived their recipe from a letter dated 1887 from James E. Pepper himself, detailing his production methods and grain bills. Straight out of the bottle, it's easy to see that this is a young whiskey, barely pale brown in color. The rye offers plenty of the grain's telltale spice, as well as some nice meadow grass, gingersnap and apple-core qualities. The Bourbon projects more oak than its brother, with coconut, caramel and pepper flavor and a mild woodsy bite. Their high proofs and low prices make these great for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, where the ice dilution tames the heat, but not the flavor.
Hillrock Estate Solera-Aged Bourbon Whiskey
This is a unique whiskey all around. Not only is it aged in a solera system, where new-make whiskey is added to a set of barrels at regular intervals, but because the distillery is so new, they had to start off with "seed whiskey," i.e., purchased stocks of aged Bourbon, to which they added their own spirit. The spirits they distill are different too, since the grain is grown and processed on property, making it a field-to-glass product. Over time, as they add more of their own distillate to the system, the flavors will slowly transition to something different. As it is now, there is a bewitching mineral quality accented with grassiness, woodsy sweetness and cinnamon-caramel. We can't wait to see how this Bourbon evolves.
This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits December 2013.