What other spirit offers as much Americana as bourbon? It's the one product that America still makes better than anyone else.
"Bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States," Congress decreed in 1964, and required that it must contain three elements: American corn, pure limestone water and new, charred oak barrels.
Years ago I tasted the aggressive Wild Turkey and had long since stayed away, but the bourbon market has matured. The aged, small-batch bourbon I sipped recently was a much different bird. Its spectrum of flavors ran peppery, fruity and spicy with a caramel and toffee finish, all mellow and rich, warming and subtly sweet.
The old Kentucky home
Bourbon was born in Kentucky, and though it's made in other states, the best distillers still call that home base. It must contain at least 51 percent corn (or mash). When aged two years or more, it's considered straight bourbon whiskey -- which is not to be confused with Tennessee whiskey, filtered through charcoal (i.e. Jack Daniel's). Nor is it corn whiskey, which isn't stored in charred oak barrels at all. Bourbon's character will vary depending on the specific grains -- such as wheat, barley and rye -- distilled with the corn.
Single-barrel bourbons are bottled straight from one barrel, not mixed with other bourbons for balance and taste. According to Roger Clark, liquor specialist at Surdyk's in Minneapolis, even those from the same distiller, using the same recipe and similar barrels aged in the same conditions, can vary widely.
"We're a seeing dark liquor renaissance," Clark said. "Bourbon is worth exploring. I tell people to choose bourbon as they might choose wine. Don't go by price; trust your own sensibilities. It's about personal taste." Some of the more noteworthy bourbons include Woodford Reserve and Elijah Craig (available as 12-year old or 18-year old single-barrel bourbon).
All in a taste test
But it's hard to plunk down between $40 and $70 or even up to $200 a bottle for bourbon that you haven't had a chance to taste. Best bet is to belly up to a bar such as that at Haute Dish in Minneapolis' Warehouse District, where bartender David Collins will pour a sample from a 50-bottle selection. Take a flight of three distinctly different bourbons for about $30 and experience a range of flavors, textures and body. Here you'll find Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20-Year Old Bourbon, creamy, rich and complex, not available in most liquor stores. These are the bourbons you'll want to sip and savor before or after dinner.
Recently, the St. Paul Grill (in the St. Paul Hotel) held a bourbon matching dinner, featuring six- and eight-year-old bourbons from Woodford Distillery. It began with mixed drinks and finished with a chocolate bourbon truffle trio. Bourbon's distinctly sweet nature mixes well with other ingredients.
Less expensive, less complex choices such as Knob Creek make a fine cocktail. At Haute Dish, Collins keeps his Old Fashioneds simple -- just sugar, bourbon, orange and locally crafted bitters. "We don't muddle this drink, so you can taste the individual flavors," Collins noted.
So far, there are no bourbon distillers in our region, but rye is putting tiny Templeton, Iowa, on the brown town map. Using local grains and Al Capone's favorite recipe for Prohibition whiskey, Templeton Rye is winning awards across the country for its bold, spicy character and clean, smooth taste. Given that we're in the nation's Corn Belt, the chance of having good Midwest bourbon can't be too far away.
The right glass
The best glass for sipping good bourbon is a hurricane-shaped, squat glass with a short stem, such as the Riedel Vinum Single Malt Whiskey Glass. A low-ball will work, but because the mouth of the glass is wide, the fragrance of the bourbon is lost too quickly. If the mouth is a bit more narrow, it lingers long enough to be savored as the spirit is sipped.
Beth Dooley is the author of the new "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."