Dominick Guzzo

Whether you’re starting 2021 with a Dryuary or toasting the New Year until the fetid smell of 2020 has worn off, January’s become a time to get thoughtful about alcohol — what we love, what we hate and what role it plays in our newly pandemic-stricken social lives. It’s also the month when, in 1919, Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing prohibition in the state and ushering in a formalized relationship between booze and government. So, in January 2021, the Arkansas Times raises a glass to all things boozy with a series we’re calling Drink/Drank/Drunk: our city’s great cocktails and mocktails, the history of temperance in the state, brews to try before you die, a boozy playlist and more. 

If you’re in the spirit for a new spirit this year, don’t be afraid to give bourbon a try. Here’s a beginner’s guide to help you on your way.

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What is bourbon?

Bourbon is whiskey that meets a few criteria set by the federal government. Bourbon must be made of a grain recipe (aka a mash bill) that is at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. And it must be made in the United States. (There are also a couple of requirements about the alcohol content that are too complicated to get into here).

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Does all bourbon come from Kentucky?

No, although Kentucky does produce 95 percent of the world’s bourbon supply. According to federal law, bourbon must be made in the United States, but it does not need to come from any particular state or region. (That includes Kentucky). That’s why you find distilleries producing bourbon all around the country, including here in Arkansas.

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Medicinal whiskey?

Yep, that’s right. Before there was medical marijuana, there was medicinal whiskey. During Prohibition, six distilleries obtained medicinal whiskey licenses, allowing them to sell (and later produce) whiskey during the period that alcohol was otherwise prohibited. Doctors could even write prescriptions for whiskey for ailments including cancer, indigestion and depression, according to Smithsonian Magazine. So, when you see a whiskey like Old Forester claim that it has been “continuously sold before, during and after Prohibition,” it’s because it was sold legally during prohibition as medicinal whiskey.

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Is it whiskey or whisky?

Either is fine. Some bourbons use the spelling of “whiskey” rather than “whisky,” and both are correct. Generally, American products use the “whiskey” spelling, but that’s not always the case. Maker’s Mark bourbon, for instance, uses the “whisky” spelling. (The style manual of the Associated Press, used by the Arkansas Times and other publications, insists that bourbon be spelled whiskey; references to scotch can drop the “e.”)

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What is “straight bourbon”?

Many bourbons are labeled “straight bourbon.” All this means is that this bourbon meets all of the federal requirements of bourbon plus it has been aged at least two years. That’s it! In general, there are no requirements for how long a bourbon must be aged but, if a product is called “straight bourbon,” you know it has been aged at least two years.

Where to start

Now that you know a little about bourbon, where do you start? Here are a few places to try, depending on what you like.

Maker’s Mark: This bourbon comes in distinctive bottles with red wax on top that will look great in your cabinet. But how does it taste? Well, if you like sweet things, this is the bourbon for you. The distillery describes this bourbon as “sweet and balanced with caramel, vanilla and fruity essences.”

Elijah Craig: This bourbon has a smoky flavor that comes from the barrels that have been heavily charred. (Note: Smoky flavors aren’t for everyone but, if you like them, then you’ll love this). Fun fact: This bourbon is named for a Baptist preacher who distilled bourbon on the side. According to one legend, an accidental fire burned Craig’s whiskey barrels, thus imparting a smoky flavor to his bourbon. Elijah Craig is said to be the first to use charred oak barrels, and today federal law requires that of all bourbon.

Basil Hayden’s: If you like spicy things, here’s one to try. As you know, all bourbons must be made up of at least 51 percent corn, but the rest of the recipe varies with different grains. Basil Hayden’s bourbon uses a high percentage of spicy rye grain to round out its recipe. The result is a bourbon with sweet notes of brown sugar and spicy notes of black pepper, according to the distillery.

Old Forester: This brand has the classic bourbon flavor that is sweet, spicy and rich. You know all those mint juleps they talk about at the Kentucky Derby? They’re made with Old Forester. (Except for a few that are made with Old Forester’s fancier cousin Woodford Reserve). The distillery says you can expect notes of vanilla and orange to go along with some spiciness.

How to Drink It

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So, how should you drink your bourbon?

Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe, a prominent bourbon industry leader, says you should drink it “any damn way you please!”

Bourbon shouldn’t be exclusive or difficult, but rather it should be enjoyed however each person prefers. So, if you like bourbon on its own, drink it neat (without ice) or on the rocks (with a few ice cubes). Or make a cocktail.

Cocktails

If you want to make a cocktail, here are two that are classic and simple:

Old Fashioned: This timeless bourbon cocktail doesn’t require many ingredients or much time to make. You’ll just need a little sugar or simple sugar, some bitters (available at any liquor store) and an orange. Here’s a recipe from Old Forester.

Hot Toddy: If you are in the mood for a warm cocktail, try this one on a cold night. You’ll just need some honey, lemon, maybe some bitters and hot water to mix with your bourbon. Here’s a recipe from Maker’s Mark.

Send your questions and bourbon suggestions to Griffin Coop at griffincoop@yahoo.com.