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Drink This Now

5 Things You Need to Know About Bourbon

Photo © Tina Rupp

I drink a lot of bourbon. I don’t say it as a boast. Every dirtbag with $25 to his name can do the same, and many do. But over the years, I’ve gained brainpower corresponding to my liver damage, and become something of a bourbon geek. Or at least I’ve communed with enough bourbon geeks to pick up a few facts about the greatest of all American spirits. Some are random, some are esoteric, but some you just can’t be without. To wit:

1. It’s all about the juice. The open secret of the bourbon business is that many brands, including even many of the most esteemed, start with bourbon not of their own making. To take just one example, Pappy Van Winkle, the most highly esteemed bourbon in the world, comes from barrels of whiskey from two or even three different distilleries, blended together to get a particular flavor. The same is true of Black Maple Hill and many other top bourbons, whose origins are the subject of much speculation among bourbon nerds on the Internet. The only exception is “single barrel” bourbon, which is unblended.

2. Nobody cares about the official definition of bourbon. You’ve probably heard that no spirit can legally be called bourbon if it doesn’t meet a whole cluster of criteria: It has to be 51 percent corn, made in America, no more than 80 proof in the bottle, and so on. Whatever! Those laws apply only in the United States; the stuff sold abroad can be anything you want. More importantly, it’s silly. A tiny bit less corn, and a tiny bit more rye, and it’s a different drink? A good Tennessee whiskey like George Dickel Barrel Select Barrel, or a great rye like Michter’s or Templeton’s, has a lot more in common with a fine bourbon than some swill that happens to meet the formal definition of bourbon.

3. Even “small batch” bourbons come from big distilleries. Of the dozens of bourbon brands you see in liquor stores, all but a handful come from the same six or seven big distilleries: Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Brown-Forman, Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries, Jim Beam and a few others. That’s one reason why the differences between bourbons are relatively subtle—as opposed to, say, Scotch, whose flavors differ wildly from region to region.

4. If you can’t get Pappy... Everyone seems to agree that Pappy Van Winkle, especially the older bottlings, is about as good as bourbon gets. Which is one reason you can’t get it. But you can get its very close cousin, W.L. Weller. The two companies have a long, intertwined history, and no less an authority than Julian Van Winkle recommends Weller to people longing for the impossible-to-find 15-, 20- and 23-year-old Pappies. I can’t, and never would, say that Julian Van Winkle was wrong about whiskey.

5. Older isn’t better. The reason people like old whiskey is that it sits in a charred-oak barrel for year after year, where wood breathes it in and out with the passing seasons. But unless you are a termite, it’s unlikely that you like the taste of wood more than the taste of whiskey. Some of the oldest bourbons—Parker 27 year, for instance, or even the legendary Pappy 23, are just too woody, at least for me. You may feel differently; but do you feel differently enough to pay three or four times as much as you would for a magnificent 12- or 15-year-old-bourbon? Maybe not.

Related: Bourbon Cocktails

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