As the sultry days of summer approach, it’s important to update your whiskey collection accordingly. Don’t laugh, there’s a seasonality to this stuff that keeps you from falling into a boring routine. Scotches take the chill out of winter. Irish whiskies are perfect for welcoming the first green buds of spring. And summer, with its hot days and wild nights, calls for the sweet, fiery flavors of bourbon. (We’ll worry about autumn when it gets here. Rye, maybe. Or Japanese.) Befitting the casual season, bourbon is by far the most laid-back of all brown liquors. It’s affordable, accessible, and versatile. Drink it neat, add some ice, or dilute it with Dr Pepper. Nobody’s going to criticize you. Made from at least 51% corn mash and aged in new, charred-oak barrels, bourbon is the quintessential American spirit, so I spent part of my winter researching some of the best bottles that you might not be familiar with at various price points. Round them up, grab a friend and a couple glasses, and enjoy the ultimate American summer.
If you like the affordability of the most popular bourbons but are curious to try something different, pick up a bottle of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. At just $25, it’s easy on the wallet, leaving you with enough cash for ice, lemonade, and red plastic cups. But don’t think mixing is a requirement. It’s smooth enough for sipping straight, with vanilla flavors and notes of dried fruit. The label’s cool too, and you can impress your drinking buddies by explaining that Buffalo Trace was the name for the ancient paths carved by migrating buffalo that led early American explorers westward.
Creeping upscale, Basil Hayden’s ($37) is a festive whiskey that elevates even the quotidian bourbon-and-cola to great mixological heights. With flavors of banana, vanilla, and pepper, it delivers a quick, satisfying hit with each sip, followed by a relatively ephemeral finish. Refreshing on ice, impressive in cocktails.
Don’t write off Tuthilltown Hudson Four Grain bourbon whiskey just because it’s from New York State. The addition of rye to the standard mix of corn, wheat, and barley gives it a spicy edge that would make any Kentucky distiller proud, while the rest of the cereals add a backdrop of smooth complexity. At $41 for a 375 ml bottle, it leans upscale (there’s the New York part), but it’s so flavorful that a little goes a long way.
Booker’s Bourbon ($50) is bottled at cask strength, from 121 to 127 proof, which makes it a punch in the face when you swig it neat, yet it’s still far smoother than many overproof whiskeys I’ve tasted. That said, it’s at its best when poured over ice and allowed to rest for ten minutes. That’s an eternity, of course, but one that rewards you with a bouquet of woody aromas and opens up a magical forest of flavors, from orange and honey to butterscotch and grass.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ($55) is unique in that it seeks to accelerate the whiskey aging process by transferring it from one oak barrel to another. The second barrel is toasted twice as long as the first, releasing the vanilla flavors from the wood and allowing notes of banana, pear, and port wine to develop. At this quality level it’s best enjoyed neat, or with one happy ice cube.
My favorite of the bunch also happens to be the most expensive, but not by much. Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey of Topmost Class ($60), from the Buffalo Trace distillery, is a classy pour. At 100 proof, it’s one of those a rare cask strength whiskey that you can drink neat without putting your fist through the wall. Sure, you’ll find some fire in your tumbler, but it gives way to flavors of cinnamon, birch, and the faintest wisp of cream, followed by a finish as long as its name. It’s at once rustic, classic, and upscale, and I’d love to see somebody order it as their bottle service spirit of choice at a fancy nightclub. Clear all those mixers off the table, just leave the water and ice. It’s nice to have something this upscale in the bourbon category. It’s loose and mellow like any of its contemporaries, just a bit more refined.
[Into experimenting with bourbon? Drop by a bourbon-centric bar or restaurant, like Manhattan’s Whiskey Ward or Brooklyn’s Fette Sau. Not suprisingly, some of the best bourbon bars in the country are in Louisville, Kentucky, so peruse BlackBook’s Louisville City Guide for a rail that’s right for you. It was compiled by Louisville.com’s Zach Everson, a bourbon enthusiast and longtime friend of BlackBook.]