Brilliantly Crafted Bourbons

by Ari Weinzweig

You may ask yourself “Why is there so much bourbon at the RH?” The answer is quite simple. Bourbon is the only great native spirit to the US. By law, bourbon whiskey has to be distilled from a base of at least 51% corn, along with a blend of barley, rye and/or wheat. The flavor will change from one brand to the next, depending on the grain blend being used. And all bourbon must, by law, come from Kentucky.

Another imperative part of great bourbon production is the water used. The iron-free, limestone heavy water of the region gets the credit for some of Bourbon’s unique flavor. (The water is said to contribute to the quality of the county’s horses as well, building strong bones.) Each bourbon maker also adds their own special strains of yeast, which contribute to the flavor. (Most keep their yeast formulas top secret.) The best bourbons are redolent of vanilla and caramel, with a touch of smokiness and subtle hints of the wood in which the whiskey was aged.

The reason that Kentucky is so ideal for making bourbon is the affect that the seasons have on aging of the liquor. Kentucky has very distinct seasons, which is the key to the maturation process. As the bourbon spends it’s time in the barrels it penetrates the pores of the wood. During the summer months, when the air is hot, the barrels expand; acting like a sponge this sucks the bourbon into the wood and imparts more flavor and color. In contrast the cold of the winter months causes the pores of the wood to contract thus forcing the spirit back out of the wood. As this continues the wood adds more and more to the finished product.

As with many fine spirits, mainly scotch and whiskeys, there are blends and single barrels. Single-barrel bourbons are essentially the grand crus of American whiskey. Most bourbons are blended from a series of barrels to get a balanced and uniform flavor. Single-barrel bourbons can be compared to estate wines, farmhouse cheeses, single origin coffees, etc. While still from a single distillery, “blended” Bourbons come from a series of different barrels—small-batch bourbons blend from roughly 20 barrels; big brands might use over 200.

All in all we love bourbon, it’s great before a meal, with a meal, or as an after dinner treat. We also have a hand full of delicious classic, and not so classic cocktails, made with this greatest of American spirits.