The New-Old Bourbons: Southern Distillers Are Reviving and Refining Spirituous Crafts

by Corby Kummer

THE talk among whiskey fanciers— the ones who a few years ago were bragging about their latest hard-tofind single-malt Scotch—has turned to “small-batch bourbons.” Bourbon was the drink of choice in my parents’ house and the first liquor I learned to like. I recently went south to find out how small-batch bourbons are made and what makes them so new. I came back convinced that bourbon and its cousins are America’s contribution to world distillery, with as strong a claim to greatness as anything from Scotland, Ireland, or Canada.

I say “and its cousins” because it turns out that what my parents thought of as bourbon isn’t really. I made the innocent but in southern parts grave error of beginning my bourbon trip in Tennessee, home of Jack Daniel, which widely publicizes its distillery tours. At a grand wine auction in Nashville which is held every year to benefit the American Cancer Society, I said casually to my welcoming hosts that I was driving down to see how Jack Daniel made bourbon. “You mean Tennessee sour-mash whiskey,” one of them said firmly, and she politely took me to task for not knowing that bourbon is named for a county in Kentucky. Even though no commercial distilleries remain in Bourbon County and a U.S. law defining bourbon allows it to be made anywhere in the country, bourbon is thought of as a Kentucky product.

When I took the really worthwhile, only minimally hokey Jack Daniel tour and then traveled to Kentucky, I learned that the difference between the two kinds of whiskey does transcend geography, and helps explain why as an adolescent I particularly enjoyed sneaking sips of Jack Daniel’s. Before being aged in barrels, Tennessee sour-mash whiskey “leaches,” or drips slowly, through a ten-foot vat of charcoal made from sugar maple. The wood, according to some, sweetens the whiskey, which is already sweeter than most of the world’s whiskeys, owing to the grain—corn—that makes up most of its base. Bourbon is sour-mash whiskey without the sugar-maple leaching.

The most important differences, though, are not between states but between individual distilleries. As good as Tennessee sour-mash whiskey can be, bourbon is where the action is. Small-batch bourbons aren’t new at all in the way they’re made. What is new is a revival of craftsmanship and skill in a process that over the years became commercialized. K. Dun Gifford, one of the founders of Oldways, a group dedicated to preserving traditional methods of making food and wine, told me recently that he thinks of the new, proudly old-fashioned bourbons as “America’s grappas,” meaning handcrafted distillates worthy of great ceremony. He remarked that any of them makes a wonderful gift for a foreign host. I would add that they make fine gifts for domestic hosts, too, not to mention for oneself.

WHAT clinched my interest in bourbon was the sour mash, which is sourdough that becomes liquor instead of bread. Any baker will recognize the process of letting grains ferment into sugars by the action of yeast, which then converts the sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol. Like the new crop of bread makers who bake sourdough bread incorporating strains of yeast captured from the air rather than only commercial yeast, bourbon distillers use “natural” yeast and keep old strains alive for decades. Whiskey makers compete, in fact, in their claims about yeasts that go back to before Prohibition. Of the nine bourbon-making companies that survive around Louisville, only a very few, including Old Forester, were legally permitted to continue selling bourbon during Prohibition—for medicinal purposes. But people at other distilleries will tell you of lovingly maintained if smelly jugs of yeast nourished throughout the dark years of the Volstead Act.

For some reason I had always thought that the base of a distilled liquor didn’t make much difference, since it all winds up tasting like alcohol anyway. But in tasting bourbons made from different recipes I began to understand how much of a change in final flavor grains can make. By law bourbon must be distilled from at least 51 percent com; rye whiskey, for its part, must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye. The predominance of corn in bourbon is a historical accident. Settlers looking to simulate the ryeand barley-based whiskeys of their home countries naturally turned to the staple grain growing all around them. Whiskey based entirely on corn, however, was too sweet for most tastes, and so distillers experimented with different combinations of corn and “smalls”—wheat, rye, barley.

The different flavors are roughly analogous to the flavors of the grains in bread and hot cereal. Corn gives a full but bland sweetness: think of unseasoned polenta or grits. Malted barley gives a round sweetness, as it does to beer—it’s the hops, a kind of dried flower, that give beer its bitter edge, and some bourbon makers in fact put hops in their equivalent of a sourdough starter. Wheat gives an overall refinement reminiscent of white bread, something that goes unappreciated these days. The flavor of wheat flour is so much taken for granted that without the tang of a sourdough starter or the butter and sugar of a cake it seems unnoticeable. But when you taste a bourbon that relies heavily on wheat—like Maker’s Mark—you understand how distinctive it can be.

More obviously distinctive, of course, is rye. I’ve never much liked bread in which rye dominates, preferring its bite in very small quantities. In tasting bourbons that feature a high proportion of rye, I discovered why I’ve so often been disappointed by rye whiskey. Too much rye gives a blatant, flat character that blunts the things I really want to taste—which in bourbon include vanilla and caramel, and also nutmeg, honey, orange, apricot, cinnamon, and apple.

IN making bourbon the grains are cooked into a kind of hot cereal, slowly and at progressively lower temperatures as each grain goes into the vat, to avoid scorching. This is the stage at which most of the water is added. Bourbon distillers are clustered around Bardstown, about an hour south of Louisville, because of its exceptional limestone water—high in calcium and free of iron, which can spoil flavor. Jack Daniel and George Dickel— another, less well-known but greatly admired maker of sour-mash whiskey— also started and stay where they are, within a short distance of each other, for the water. The Jack Daniel distillery, situated in a dry county, sells bottled water instead of bourbon at its shop, with the familiar black label. The water is sweet, round and soft in the mouth, and, truth be told, pretty bland. For its part, Maker’s Mark insists on buying only corn and wheat that have been raised in fields above the same watershed that provides the water for its bourbon.

Once the “sweet slurry” is cooked, it is combined with a quantity of sour mash from previous batches—the starter—and yeast, and the mash is left to develop in open wooden vats for three to five days. On the Jack Daniel tour visitors are encouraged to dip a finger into a vat; I was surprised at how few people did. After two or three days the porridge was tangy and slightly alcoholic—not breakfast material.

The mash then goes into a still in which the alcoholic portion of the mash is steamed off and condensed. By law bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof (out of a potential 190; proof is double the percentage of alcohol by volume), but most bourbon makers distill at between 125 and 145. Because most bourbon is sold at somewhere between 80 and 100 proof, they add water later to bring down the proof. Although it might be more economical for a maker to distill to a higher proof and add more water, too high a proof will result in a nearly tasteless liquid. Many makers take the extra step of putting the initial distillate, called “low wine,” through a second still to refine its flavors. The resulting “high wine” is put into barrels. The spent mash is dried and sold as animal feed that is said to be exceptionally nourishing.

The barrels for bourbon must by law be new, and this may help explain why so many of the nine Kentucky distilleries choose to market much of their production simply as whiskey, not bourbon: new barrels are expensive. The white-oak barrels, again by law, are charred on the inside. This charring gives bourbon its color (no coloring can be added), and the degree of charring helps determine the robustness or delicacy of the bourbon. Color comes from the “red layer” between the charred surface and the uncharred wood (think of the color of toast before it burns). As the weather changes, the liquid goes into and out of the pores of the barrel, acquiring not only color but also the vanilla flavors of the wood. Used barrels are often sold to distillers in Scotland and Canada.

Most bourbon is aged only six or seven years. You’ll never find a seventeen-yearold bourbon, as you will a Scotch. This isn’t because bourbon makers are out for a quicker buck, although of course tying up stock also ties up money. It’s because the Kentucky weather is much hotter than that in Scotland or Ireland or Canada. The temperature on the top floor of a storage warehouse, called a rack house, can reach 125° on a hot summer’s day. This intense heat gives Kentucky and Tennessee whiskeys much of their characteristic flavor. Aging for too long, though, would draw too many tannins and other unpleasant-tasting substances out of the wood. Because the temperature on different levels of the rack house can vary so much—on the same day that it is 125° on the top floor, it can be 70° on the bottom floor—most distillers blend many barrels from various levels before bottling. Maker’s Mark follows the logical practice of rotating the barrels—a step too expensive for most others to take, requiring as it does both labor and keeping some racks empty. The smell of even the cool bottom floor of a rack house at Jack Daniel is overpowering.

THE many cryptic pieces of information on a label touch on matters of debate—for instance, the effect on taste of the final proof. Some maintain that a certain bourbon will simply taste better at a certain proof, whether that is 85 or 101. Bill Samuels, for example, who began bottling Maker’s Mark in the late 1950s, decided that his bourbon was best at 90 proof. Others, like Booker Noe, the grandson of Jim Beam himself, think that bourbon is best at “barrel proof,” meaning with no water added—in the case of Booker’s, a new bourbon named for Noe, anywhere from 121 to 127 proof. (Wild Turkey Rare Breed is also barrel proof.) Liquor of such a high proof need not be filtered, as other bourbons are in order to prevent possible clouding. As with wine, the less filtering, the more flavor comes through.

Nearly every bottle of bourbon comprises liquor taken from many barrels. Only the premium bourbons from the Leestown distillery, including Blanton’s, Rock Hill, and Hancock’s Reserve, are actually “single-barrel” bourbons. Even if the other premium bourbons come from multiple barrels, though, they are not “blended,” a term indicating that neutral (that is, cheap and flavorless) spirits have been added. All the new bourbons, then, are “straight.” meaning unblended.

Are they small-batch? Maybe or maybe not, given the lack of agreement on what that is. Maker’s Mark claims that the term has traditionally meant bourbons bottled from mixtures made up of no more than 1,000 gallons, and that rival distillers draw from bigger batches. Others say that there is no precise definition. It doesn’t much matter. The new bourbons involve great care in the making, and it shows in the sipping.

A GREAT all-purpose bourbon is Maker’s Mark, which costs only about $15 a bottle. The company brags of the smoothness that results from the high proportion of wheat used and the absence of rye, but the sweet elegance is usefully counterbalanced, I think, by a roughness that gives the bourbon real character without making it in the least harsh.

The Jim Beam company has taken the marketing lead in releasing four smallbatch bourbons with great-looking labels. One of the labels, that of Basil Hayden’s (this bourbon is by far the least interesting of the four, perhaps because it contains a lot of rye), looks like a Quaker cassock and has a metal belt with a “bH” insignia where the buckle would be. My favorite is Baker’s (107 proof), for its strong vanilla and spice flavors and lingering smooth finish. I think it’s delicious. Knob Creek, which recently tied with a new Maker’s Mark limited-release bourbon for “National Champion Whiskey” in a tasting conducted by Wine Enthusiast magazine, has a less sunny range of flavors, including caramel and orange, and a peppery bite. I don’t like it nearly as much.

Booker’s, the fourth bourbon, is a whole different drink—as big as the man himself, who is huge, and talks in nonstop folkisms. The aroma is spicy and powerful, and the high proof means that the liquor is scorching—it more or less must be diluted with water, which brings out the full range of flavors in almost any bourbon. Even diluted, Booker’s is as rough-hewn and potent as any whiskey. The finish, though, is unexpectedly refined, like a smooth jet landing. Booker’s probably shouldn’t be the only bourbon you stock, but you shouldn’t deny yourself a taste of it either. (The bourbon, which costs $45 a bottle, came in a close third in the Wine Enthusiast competition.) Happily, Jim Beam sells a tasting assortment of the four, in miniature bottles niftily packaged in a wooden crate, for $20.

The most impressive premium bourbon I tasted was Rock Hill, which comes in a pompous square bottle with gold horses painted on it, as if it has to look expensive (the suggested price is $40). What’s inside is a revelation—fantastically smooth, sweet with the flavors of vanilla and caramel, and as perfect for sipping as any Scotch could ever be. So satiny is Rock Hill that it demands no water, and goes down with amazing ease; at 100 proof, that could be dangerous.

PERHAPS inspired by the name, I wanted to cook with Baker’s as soon as I tasted it (like Baker’s chocolate, though, it’s named for a person). Elizabeth Alston, the author of an excellent series of small baking books, includes a fine Tennessee-whiskey pound cake (you can use bourbon) in her new Simply Cakes. This calls for just the right amount of complementary nutmeg; don’t overbake it, and, as with all pound cakes, let it rest a day before serving. My favorite whiskey recipe comes from a monumental new collection, Classic Home Desserts, from the always reliable writer Richard Sax. This has the right recipe for just about any dessert you’d actually like to make in your kitchen. It includes a charming recipe, which I made with success, for “Tennessee old maid’s sweet potato pudding,” distinguished by its grated raw potatoes rather than chunked cooked ones; the liquor is in the spiked whipped cream. Sax even includes a recipe for cookies with whiskeyor bourbon-soaked candied fruit: a palatable alternative to the dreaded fruitcake, and one that needn’t be started months in advance.

In a few months, when the weather gets warmer, it will be time for juleps (the word comes from the Persian for “rosewater”). At Booker Noe’s house, where his wife, Annis, served me the southern lunch of my dreams, I admired the squat sterling julep beakers above the sideboard. Noe gave me his recipe for the perfect mint julep. The first secret is the syrup: boil two cups of water and two cups of sugar for five minutes, and when the liquid is cool, add two cups of spearmint leaves, no stems; allow the syrup to steep, covered and refrigerated, for two days. Fill a six-ounce cup flush to the top with crushed ice “so damned hard a cat can’t scratch it.” None of that soft ice, Noe admonishes. Drizzle two tablespoons of syrup over the ice and “give it time to run down.” Then add an ounce and a half of bourbon, and plunge a straw down to the bottom of the cup. The next secret is patience, which will bring its own reward: don’t start drinking for at least five minutes. “As you sip that julep, it’ll get so much better,” Noe promises. “You’ll see what I’m saying.”