Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Untold Story Of Bourbon

Gretchen Hils holds the glass of amber liquid up to the light and peers through it over the top rim of her reading glasses with almost reverential admiration.

"Look at that color," says Hils, manager of the Greenbush Bar on Regent Street. "Isn't that beautiful?"

The reddish-caramel hue of the liquid in the glass, even in the Greenbush's dim light, had an alluring quality, almost as if copper itself had been refined into a rich, robust elixir. In the world's color palette, nothing matches the shades of whiskey, and to the aficionado's tasting palate, no whiskey is quite as dynamic as bourbon.

Hils, a Kentucky native who came to the UW to pursue a graphic arts degree, is a self-described bourbon enthusiast who helms one of Madison's best small-batch and single-barrel bourbon back bars. Her passion stems both from the opportunity to promote one of her home state's greatest resources (more than 90 percent of all bourbons come from Kentucky) and from an abiding passion for the only truly American spirit.

"It has to be made in this country to qualify as a bourbon," says Hils, who's been managing the Greenbush Bar for 11 years, but has been a bourbon enthusiast for much longer than that.

Bourbon doesn't have to be made in Kentucky, or specifically Bourbon County, to qualify as bourbon, but many think the state's limestone spring water creates the best natural additive to the spirit. Bourbon does need to be made from a mash that's at least 51 percent corn, weigh in at less then 160 proof (or 80 percent alcohol) and have been aged for at least two years in new oak barrels, the inside of which has been charred to flavor and filter the whiskey.

The end result, say Hils and others, is a truly unique spirit with an exclusively American connection and pedigree that makes the best of them world contenders. The smaller the quantity in production, the more distinctive will be the bourbon's character and flavor. In addition to mass-market blends, craft-distilled bourbons come in two varieties:

• Small-batch bourbons are distilled in a pot still in quantities of 19 barrels or less. The smaller quantity, which allows for greater experimentation among distillers, can also ratchet up the price.

• Single-barrel bourbons, as their name implies, come from even smaller, one-barrel batches. The same economies apply, but single-barrels can be even more idiosyncratic based on the nature and character of the distiller. Supplies also can be extremely limited.

Despite the exclusivity of some brands, Hils works hard to keep even the most exclusive bourbons in the price range of average drinkers. The following, each priced by the drink, are all worth exploring:

• Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel, 100 proof ($6.50): A fairly high rye content gives this whiskey a lovely color, an almost floral nose and soft, inviting palate. It would be too easy to succumb to this most alluring of bourbons.

• Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10 Year Old 90 proof ($5): With a vanilla nose and peppery palate, the bourbon, while popular, gets "hot" because of the alcohol as it aerates. Despite it being a past award winner, more balanced blending might help.

• Pappy Van Winkle's 15 Year Old 107 proof ($6.75): A powerful hitter with oak on both the nose and palate shows elements of the barrel charring in the aftertaste.

• Sazerac Rye 6 Year Old 90 proof ($5): It doesn't technically qualify in this category, but a quick taste is useful to recognize the fruit and spiciness in the mix. It also helps illustrate the important role that rye plays in the bourbon blend.

• Blanton's Single Barrel 93 proof ($6.50): One of the few bourbons whose blend adds an almost creamy quality to the spirit with honeyed caramel notes; a 2003 International Wine and Spirits Competition gold medalist.

• Booker's Unfiltered and Uncut Single Barrel 124.7 proof ($6.50): Named for the recently deceased Booker Noe, the most recent scion of the Jim Beam distilling empire, this bourbon combines the best of both balance and power. The full, rich flavor occupies the palate like an aged Bordeaux, with the whiskey aerating to open like a rose. A dash of water heightens the flavors of this dangerous beauty even further.

• George T. Stagg Single Barrel Unfiltered and Uncut 131.8 proof ($7.75): A bourbon lover's bourbon and Hils' personal favorite. Stagg's honeyed palate and nose are redolent of a dense pine forest in intensity with a touch of leather on the tongue engorged with the whiskey's fiery, full flavors.

• Jefferson's Very Small Batch 88 proof ($6) and Jefferson's Reserve Very Old 90.2 proof ($7.50): Both from the same distillery and driven by vanilla flavors from the oak kegs, the Very Small Batch has a fuller caramel palate, while the Very Old has a brighter, almost citrus quality while packing a little more punch.

• Old Forester Birthday Bourbon Small Batch 96 proof ($7): A full-flavored, nicely balanced bourbon with good grain and no evident oak flavors, the Old Forester unfurls beautifully in the glass with essences of fruit and spearmint in the aftertaste.

Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey

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