Bourbon, the sweet “brown water” of the South, has been steadily gaining popularity over the last decade, but how much do you really know about this trendy beverage? Perhaps you like it neat, on the rocks or mixed in your favorite cocktail. If you’re anything like me you probably do a little cooking with it too because it adds an unmistakable depth of flavor and sweetness to a dish. You already know that I have an endless love affair with wine. Bourbon is really not all that different from wine, from the way it’s produced, to the standards dictating its production, to cooking with it or enjoying it all on its own, and even pairing it with your favorite foods. Like a prized Bordeaux, exclusive brands of Bourbon are highly sought after by enthusiasts and collectors all over the world. Thirsty for more? Then join me on a legendary journey to discover the world of Bourbon Whiskey including the newest Bourbon to hit the Atlanta scene, and taste for yourself why it’s changing the way we do cocktail hour.
Equality for None
Bourbon is a type of Whiskey, but not all Whiskey is Bourbon. Bourbon, like fine wine, is held to a higher level of Federal standards than Whiskey. For instance, Bourbon must be made in the good old United States of America, whereas given the recent popularity of dark spirits, whiskey is being produced and consumed in just about every corner of the globe. In addition, Bourbon must be stored in brand new charred oak barrels. Oak barrels are expensive, and typically they only impart their heavenly flavors of smoky vanilla, coconut and caramel for about 4 years. To give you some perspective, most moderately priced wines do not use new oak barrels, and many less expensive ones don’t use oak at all. Instead, they use oak staves or chips or a little technique called micro-oxygenation to mimic the effects of oak aging through the addition of tiny oxygen bubbles. But by default, Bourbon has to use new oak or it would just be called Whiskey. So keep that in mind the next time you ponder the price tag. It’s worth it.
Everyone has heard of food and wine pairings, but did you know that Bourbon also pairs excellently with a wide variety of foods? Bourbon gets partnered up with food all the time even without us thinking about it. Being from New Orleans, I can’t imagine a bite of warm spiced bread pudding that isn’t swimming in a rich pool of Bourbon sauce. And who in the South hasn’t heard of Bourbon Pecan Pie or Bourbon Weenies, for that matter? Theoretically, it just makes sense especially since many of the same flavor profile descriptors that apply to wine can also apply to Bourbon, like sweet, nutty, bitter, bold, spicy, oaky, vanilla, toffee, dried fruit and caramel. It’s the complex flavor profile that makes Bourbon so incredibly food friendly. But it’s not only about dessert. Just like wines evolve with age, Bourbon also takes on more complex characteristics with additional aging. Typically younger Bourbons exhibit those sweet flavors that are most commonly associated with it, and these are excellent partners for sweet treats. These younger Bourbons also won’t break the bank if you enjoy cooking with it like I do. As Bourbons age, however, the profile picks up additional savory and spicy flavors and these are the ones that can truly transcend a dining experience.
Next time you’re putting together a wine and cheese tasting, consider throwing in a few Bourbon pairings as well for an ultra-modern twist on a beloved classic. Just imagine a nutty Manchego or Gruyere drizzled with honey and paired with a sweet, caramely Bourbon.
The same rules that apply to food and wine pairings also apply to Bourbon and food pairings. In very general terms, pair like characteristics together or go for a contrasting duo. Remember how that fatty steak tastes so incredibly silky and delicious alongside a bold Cabernet? Rich foods smoothen the effect of bitter tannins and alcohol so the Bourbon tastes softer and smoother. Bourbon is often used in fall desserts like pumpkin or pecan pie because the similar spices in both the Bourbon and dessert compliment each other. Likewise, a sweet Bourbon will pair with a sweet food and a smokey Bourbon will pair well with smoked or grilled foods.
Pairing light foods with wine is simple, you just pair it with a light-bodied wine. But how do you pair bold Bourbon with a delicate food? The answer is simple as well. You can remedy that conundrum by adding ingredients that mimic the flavor profile of the Bourbon, like adding smoky bacon on a delicate salad or sweet caramelized onions on chicken. And speaking of Conundrum, one of my favorite semi-sweet wines, the inherent sweetness in Bourbon will also help put out the fire of spicy foods. There’s a reason the most famous street in New Orleans is named after Bourbon, after all.
The Ultimate Pairing
For the ultimate decadent treat, which could very well double as a dessert, appetizer, or main course in my case, try your favorite Bourbon in a Baked Brie en Croute with Walnuts and Brown Sugar. The rich range of complex flavors from all the different components coming together in one warm, melty bite make for an absolute sensory overload. And if you want to take that to the next level, follow that bite with a cool sip of smooth Bourbon. Now that’s a match made in heaven.
Fermenting the Grains
Hopefully by now you know that wine is basically fermented grape juice. But where does Bourbon come from? Just like wine can be blended from several vineyards, vintages or even grape varieties, the Bourbon grain or mash bill, in other words the distillery recipe, can be composed of varying percentages of corn, barley, rye and wheat. Bourbon producers can’t add artificial flavors or colors so it’s really the mash bill in combination with the oak barrels that ultimately determine the flavor profile. Just like wine regions or appellations are subject to certain rules regarding which grapes and how many can be used in the cuvee, Federal regulations stipulate that Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn though traditional ones are made with mostly corn and barley with a bit of rye to round out the mix. Generally, the grain composition determines if a Bourbon will be sweeter (high corn), spicy (high rye) or caramely (high wheat).
Small Batch Reserve
Just like there are limited production reserve and meritage wines, there are small batch and single barrel Bourbons. Small batch is loosely defined, however. It just means that a distillery used fewer barrels to make a bottling than it would have used in making its flagship label, but that could mean 10 barrels or 100o barrels. Single barrel, on the other hand, refers to Bourbon made from one and only one barrel, no mingling allowed. Why does the barrel matter? For one thing, the flavors imparted by the barrel will vary depending on the origin and age of the wood used, but it’s also believed that where the barrel is stored in the warehouse can impact the flavors.
Living the Dream
Last December I had the privilege of meeting Rick Tapia, founder of La Bodega International and the entrepreneur behind J.R. Revelry small batch bourbon, which premiered in New York early this year and has finally hit the market in Atlanta this month. I also got to sample his incredibly smooth Bourbon and am excited to share that we are teaming up to bring you exciting new recipes and Bourbon pairings featuring J.R.Revelry.
Rick spent 17 years in the spirits industry learning everything there was to know through various roles. He dreamed of having his own line starting with the development of his own small batch Bourbon. Rick partnered with a well-known distillery in Tennessee and his dream became a reality. If you’re already a brown spirits fan, you will love this ultra-smooth Bourbon with traditional notes of vanilla and oak together with “some unexpected” flavor profiles. And if you’re new to Bourbon, this one is a great introduction because it’s incredibly approachable and easy going, which I think is going to make it a huge hit among the female population. Men seem to think there’s something incredibly attractive about a woman sipping a glass of Bourbon. I suppose it exudes confidence and a sense of knowing what we like and want. And believe me, you’ll want to get your hands on this when it hits the shelves near you. Cheers!