Raise a glass to bourbon

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With Thanksgiving around the corner, it's time to take a look at one of the stars of America's drinking history: bourbon

Words: Laura Foster

Hold onto your hats, drinks fans: bourbon is booming, and dark spirits are rocketing up the popularity charts. Just as our recent obsession with gin has led to the creation of numerous cocktail bars dedicated to the spirit, and a whole raft of new gin brands having launched in the last five years, a similar movement is starting to happen with bourbon.

"I’ve seen a large increase in demand [for bourbon]," says Naomi Swift, assistant general manager of The Blues Kitchen, a bar specialising in American whisky in Camden. "I believe this to be a direct result of how people in the bar industry have started to reinvent some great hidden classic cocktails."

Classic cocktails definitely play a part - with the characters in Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire throwing back bourbon-based drinks in every episode, our curiosity has been piqued.

And with our current obsession with the speakeasy culture that grew out of Prohibition - which is now recreated in top cocktail bars around the world - these classic drinks and the spirits that make them have been placed in the spotlight.

It seems that not a month goes by at the moment when one of the established bourbon distilleries such as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve announce that they're expanding production facilities, while smaller craft distillers are setting up across the States.

Here's all the information you need to sound like an expert on the subject...

Prohibition hit the bourbon industry hard

The mists of time

As gin is inherently linked to British culture and history, so bourbon is to America, which officially declared bourbon "America's Native Spirit" in 1964. "When you think of America, you think of apple pie, Uncle Sam, and those wonderful dark spirits that are made there," says Tom Vernon, an American whisky brand ambassador for spirits company Brown-Forman.

Its origins lie in the 18th century, when settlers from Ireland and Scotland arrived in numerous states, including what is now Kentucky, bringing their knowledge of whisky production with them.

With conditions in Kentucky being particularly favourable for growing corn, which is needed to make whisky, a strong distilling industry grew up here. And when Bourbon County was established in 1785, covering most of the area where these distilleries were based, it would eventually prove to be a namesake for the revered whisky made in the region - which eventually received the official name of "bourbon" in 1840.

It wasn't all a smooth ride to success, however: Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 resulted in the dismantling of most distilleries, with only six staying open to produce bourbon for "medicinal purposes". Jim Rutledge, the master distiller at Four Roses - which was one of the distilleries that did continue - says, "Doctors would prescribe a pint of bourbon every 10 days for those who were sick enough. There were more people sick in those times than at any other point!"

When the dark days of Prohibition were finally over, it took a long time for the bourbon industry to recover, but now the dark stuff is flying off the shelves, with roughly 95% of bourbon still made in Kentucky, and the rest made in other parts of America by the new craft distillers.

Bourbon: corn, barley, wheat and rye are all key ingredients

The basics

So what makes bourbon a bourbon, instead of another whisky? It's all in the laws. It must be made in America, and while it can be made with a mix of different grains, at least 51% of the recipe (or "mash bill" if you want to impress with a bit of drinks geekery) must comprise of corn. The other grains are a combination of barley, wheat and rye.

The different mash bills - where levels of the grains alternate - typically produce different flavours in the drink. Rye and wheat are the two that affect flavour most - more rye in the mix often brings spicy, dry notes, while wheat-heavy bourbons are soft and creamy.

Bourbon must be aged in casks made from new American white oak for a minimum of two years, but you ideally want to find those that have been aged for at least four years.

The legendary Bourbon & Branch bar in San Francisco

A matter of taste

When it comes to drinking bourbon, there's no right or wrong way - it's up to you. "I don’t try to tell someone how they should enjoy bourbon," says Rutledge. "Just enjoy it the way you like it. Personally, I like it neat or with one or two ice cubes."

If you think you don't like the taste of whisky, then bourbon is still probably worth a look: it's typically sweeter and more mellow than the whiskies made in Scotland and Ireland. "I'm not actually keen on Scotch whisky, which is only made from barley. Bourbon's flavour profile is much less challenging," says Dan Priseman, a bourbon expert and co-owner of NOLA, a London bar dedicated to the drinking scene in New Orleans.

"It's a slightly sweet, yet complex character," Priseman continues. "Bourbons tend to have vanilla, toffee and fudge notes, that appeal to a wide range of drinkers. Backing up these sweeter notes you often find nice touches of dried spice, gentle dry wood flavours as well as cereal or bread-like notes from the grains used to produce it. Because it is not quite as sharp or harsh as other whiskies it is easy to sip but also very versatile to mix in cocktails. It's the all-rounder of the whisky world."

"If you’re a bourbon virgin, start off small," says Swift. "I'd recommend something on the more mellow side like bourbon from Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams or Elijah Craig."

Being a wonderful spirit to make cocktails with, it boasts a panoply of popular classics that are really easy to make but will always impress any guests you have round for Thanksgiving. Just take a look at the list below, and dive in:

Mad Men's Don Draper: knocking back bourbon at every turn

Bourbon cocktails: four of the best

When choosing what bourbon to mix with, it really depends on taste. If you prefer a bit of pepper bite, go for those with high rye content such as Four Roses Yellow Label or Woodford Reserve.

Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned has zipped up the cocktail popularity charts since Don Draper hit our screens and seemed to have one permanently grafted to his lips. As a result of his suave support, this cocktail has gone from relative obscurity to being included on any self-respecting bar’s drinks menu.

You might want to consider changing the Angostura bitters for rhubarb bitters - it's a minor tweak that adds great depth to the cocktail.

Drink with: Pulled pork

Glass: Rocks

Garnish: Orange zest


  • 50ml bourbon
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 3 dashes Angostura Bitters

Method: Place the sugar cube in the bottom of the glass and soak with the bitters. Add a drop of water, and use a muddling implement to crush the sugar, lining the edges of the glass with it. Fill the glass with ice, add the whisky and stir for two minutes, top up with ice, flex the orange zest over the top and drop in.


Simple, sophisticated, delicious... and also 130 years old. When it comes to choosing which garnish to use, it's up to you: while the lemon zest lifts the drink with its citric aromas, the cherry will add a richer note.

Drink with: Steak with blue cheese sauce

Glass: Coupe

Garnish: Lemon twist or Luxardo maraschino cherry


  • 50ml bourbon
  • 25ml Martini Rosso sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura Bitters

Method: Measure ingredients into a mixing glass, add ice and stir for two minutes. Strain the drink into your coupe, and either drop the cherry in, or flex the lemon zest over the top and drop it in, depending on your garnish preference.


This is one for Negroni fans, as the Boulevardier is a cousin of that gin-based classic cocktail: you just swap the gin for bourbon. It's simple to make, with a wonderful balance between sweet, rich and bitter flavours.

Drink with: Maple syrup and bourbon-glazed ham

Glass: Rocks

Garnish: Lemon zest twist


  • 25ml bourbon
  • 25ml Campari
  • 25ml Martini Rosso sweet vermouth

Method: Stir the ingredients together in your glass with ice, top up with a little more ice, flex the lemon zest over the drink to release the oils and drop into the glass.

Mint Julep

You can't get closer to a Kentucky drinking experience than a Mint Julep, which has been the drink of the Kentucky Derby since1938. They apparently serve 120,000 Juleps across the two-day racing event at Churchill Downs. This is a long, cool and refreshing concoction, and can be adjusted to your taste - just add a little more simple syrup if you prefer it sweeter.

Drink with: Key lime pie

Glass: Julep cup or Collins

Garnish: Mint sprig


  • 50ml bourbon
  • 2 bar spoons/ teaspoons simple syrup*
  • 8 mint leaves

Method: Place the mint sprigs in the bottom of your glass, measure in the simple syrup, and muddle the two together, gently crushing the mint to release some of its oils. Add the bourbon, and fill the glass with crushed ice, stirring everything together until the glass has turned frosty. Top up with another mound of crushed ice on the top, and garnish.

*To make the simple syrup, add one part sugar to one part boiling water and stir until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear.

Photos: Rex Features

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