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Sour mash supreme: learning to savor premium bourbons.

Bold and fiery in its most generic form, Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is jokingly referred to as an uncouth and coarse swig for banjo-infatuated rabble-rousers. But at its best, America's only native spirit is, in fact, a deliciously smooth and seriously sophisticated drink imbued with an oaky sweetness worthy of admiration from the most refined palettes.


Historically tied to the birth and growth of the United States, bourbon originated as a byproduct of immigration, taxation and ingenuity. Back in the late 1700s, Irish and Scottish immigrants flocked from Western Pennsylvania to Kentucky carrying little else but their homegrown whiskey-making tradition. President George Washington had noticed how their backyard pot stills had started springing up like mushrooms and asked the Continental Congress to enact taxation on whiskey production. To quell the subsequent "Whiskey Rebellion," the government called out the Continental Army but also offered 60 acres of free land in the wilds of Kentucky in return to anyone who agreed to move there--with their stills--to grow native corn. That spurred on a contingent of land-grabbing, whiskey-making colonists, and thus an industry was born.

The Kentucky settlers' new whiskey almost immediately stood apart. With corn as its main ingredient--rather than rye--this new whiskey had a fundamentally different character. Without peat to fuel the malt-drying fires prior to fermentation, master distillers attempted to approximate that characteristic smokiness by aging their "white-dog" (clear, unaged whiskey) in new, white oak barrels whose insides had been charred. It tasted nothing like its predecessor, but the resulting flavor and color proved revolutionary.

The Kentucky bourbon of today is made almost exactly the same way it was 200 years ago. Congress passed a law in 1964 that defined and still protects bourbon's integrity: It must contain no less than 51 percent corn mash (although that mash can contain malted barley, rye and wheat, as well); must be distilled at no more than 160 proof; cannot be placed into a barrel higher than 125 proof; and must be aged for a minimum of two years in a charred, new white oak barrel. No coloring or flavoring agents can be added--only local limestone spring water to cut the bottling proof--making Kentucky bourbon the only truly natural whiskey in the world.

Master distillers employ a variety of methods to dictate the desired subtleties of body, taste, smell and color that separate one bourbon from another. Proof, both at distillation and through aging, determines the inherent "heat" on the tongue and the final alcohol content, while the mash mixture of grains, how they're grown, and how they're milled (cracked or rolled) affects overall body and any overt sweetness.

Of equal importance is the duration of aging in the barrel along with the barrel's location and rotation--or lack thereof--in the rickhouse during the process. This, along with local weather, directly affects how the spirit is drawn in and out of the barrel's charred wood interior, thereby, influencing the flavors of oak, smoke, vanilla, caramel, old leather, dark fruit, anise and mint that you taste.

Similarly, whether bourbon is filtered or unfiltered will have a pronounced effect on its final flavor. Unfiltered bourbons have greater complexity of taste and depth, but when cooled below 50[degrees]F, amino acids in the unfiltered bourbon can become hazy. This cloudiness is purely aesthetic, but as a result you won't find too many unfiltered bourbons at less than 100 proof. Most premium bourbons are labeled as "single barrel" and/or "small batch." ("Single barrel" means the bourbon comes from an unblended "honey" barrel handpicked by the master distiller, while "small batch" means it was created from a blend of barrels for a limited run of bottles.) When you see "straight bourbon" on the label, that refers to bourbon produced using the sour mash method, which passes liquid from an earlier distillation onto the next distillation to create consistency between batches.

With bourbon, as in life, there are pros and cons to aging. In the case of bourbon, age has diminishing returns after a point, but that point is a moving target--master distillers strive to strike a subtle balance between the main flavor components of vanilla and caramel flavors with that of the charred oak.

The creation of premium bourbon is undoubtedly a sweet science, and the best recipes have remained family secrets for generations. Luckily, in the grand tradition of our forefathers, we get to enjoy the fruits of the labor. Here are a few suggestions, either straight up or cut with a dash of water.

If You're Sipping

Elijah Craig 18-year-old single barrel ($37) -- The oldest single-barrel bourbon available, EC gives off the luxurious aroma of caramel and leaves you mesmerized. Bitter at first taste (in a good way), with a quick bite (90 proof), it finishes with tempered warmth and a nutty, rounded taste. Reminiscent of cognac, with lots of oak and hints of old leather. Complex and extremely well mannered.

George T. Stagg 15-year-old ($48) -- Delightfully aromatic and intoxicating in every sense of the word, this "chocolate in a glass" is unfiltered and uncut out of the barrel, giving it an overwhelming bouquet of candy and lots of heat (131.8 proof). Somewhat rough and very sweet, Stagg is for sipping and savoring. Only 4,000 cases are made yearly, so don't delay.

Eagle Rare 17-year-old ($48) -- This 90-proof, single-barrel bourbon is smooth and slightly musty, telling you that it's at its peak of maturity. Complexity abounds, with the right amount of wood, lots of caramel and vanilla, and a hint of leather and anise at the finish.

Pappy Van Winkle 15-year-old ($50) -- With a rich nose of taffy and cocoa, and wood and butterscotch in the mouth, this wheated bourbon--there's no rye in it--is not as spicy as others, but Pappy still packs a bite (107 proof).

Woodford Reserves Master Collection Four Grain ($80) -- This is the only bourbon to be distilled entirely in copper. Only five years old, it's clean and focused, with a peppery smell and hot (92.4 proof), licorice finish. With unusual but pleasing contributions of white-dog and traces of copper, it's also very soft thanks to the wheat in its mash bill.

Jim Beam's Distiller's Masterpiece ($250) -- Technically not a bourbon due to additional aging in either port or sherry casks, this is remarkably smooth and full bodied, even at 99 proof. Bottled in a French glass decanter, the port version is elegant in every way.


Slush Fund

THINK THE MINT JULEP is the end-all of bourbon cocktails? At September's annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, the grand prize winner of the mixed drink challenge put a culinary spin on all other comers. Here's the Island Mango Slush, as conceived by Chris Howerton, executive chef at Louisville's Bourbon Bistro:


* half a ripe mango

* 1 tbsp. finely minced fresh ginger root

* 2 or 3 fresh mint leaves

* 1.25 oz. bourbon (less sweet brands are best)

* 1.5 oz. ginger ale

* 1 cup of ice

Place ginger, mint and mango into blender and liquefy. Add ice and blend until smooth. Add bourbon and ginger ale, stir well, then pour into a sugared martini glass. Float a few drops of bourbon on top, garnish with orange, then serve. And they're off ...
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Title Annotation:EXECUTIVE LIFE
Author:Gelfand, Michael
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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