Tempered Spirits

Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels

Bourbon & Rye Primer

The next meting of the Heron Social Club approaches! The theme? Bourbon and Rye.

When you’re looking at base spirits, whiskey is arguably right up there with gin, a well-established spirituous foundation on which rests a large family of cocktails. Choosing a whiskey can, however, become quite a dilemma, as each variety of this spirit differs remarkably from it relatives. Want something sweet and sippable? Go with bourbon. Want that with a little more wood and char? Get the Tennessee variety. How about something spicy, with heat? Rye will work. Smoky, peaty, and malty? Has to be Scotch. Smooth, friendly, and full of caramel? Irish whiskey. Of course, we could also talk about moonshine, unaged “white dog” whiskies, and corn whiskey…there are lots of choices!

So what makes a spirit a whiskey? Basically, if it’s been distilled from a grain, it’s a whiskey. The differences in nomenclature are the result of the grains used, production processes, and the geographical location of the distillery. We’ll skip over Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y for now — that’s a whole other ball game for another cocktail night — and focus on their American cousins: bourbon and rye. For some additional musings on the nature of whiskey, check out Michael Neff’s article on Serious Eats.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon is probably the most popular whiskey in the US right now. Being made from corn, it is sweeter than most other whiskeys, with a full-bodied taste that’s easy to get used to. While it can be made anywhere in the US, bourbon has remained closely associate with its namesake county in Kentucky. In its original, massive 1785 form, Bourbon County stretched from western Virginia and into what is now eastern Kentucky, and was named for the Bourbon monarchy in France. Over the years it was subdivided into new states and counties, but the region retained the name and was referred to as “Old Bourbon.” Since barrels of whiskey shipped along the Ohio River were marked with Old Bourbon as their point of origin, and corn whiskey was a fairly unique product up through the 1800s, the spirit itself took on the name “bourbon.”

A bourbon’s mash bill must consist of at least 51% corn, the remainder of the mash consisting of wheat, rye, or malted barley. Wheated bourbons contain a large percentage of wheat in the remainder of the mash bill, but rye can also be used to great effect. The grains are finely ground, then combined with water and a portion of the previous distillation’s mash, giving you a sour mash (a technique that is often, but not always, used to ensure a consistent pH level). Yeast is added and mixture is allowed to ferment; the fermented product is then distilled to between 130 and 160 proof. The resulting spirit is brought down to 125 proof and placed in new, charred oak barrels to age. There’s no exact minimum on the age of the whiskey, but if you wait two years you can call it “straight bourbon whiskey.”

As mentioned above, bourbon is full-bodied and sweet, as far as whiskey goes. Of course, there’s a wide range of bourbons available, and each one differs slightly in strength, sweetness, and spiciness; I’ve paraphrased the Imbibe March/April 2011 bourbon article, “Spirit of the South” to help explain the differences between styles:

Traditional Bourbons

  • Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Early Times, Elijah Craig, Baker’s, Booker’s, Jefferson’s, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill

More traditional bourbons have a mash that is about 70% corn grain, the remainder consisting of equal amounts of malted barley and rye. Most bourbon is blended from a large number of barrels and then bottled, but small-batch whiskies are made from a smaller number of barrels, giving them more unique flavor profiles. Some are bottled at cask-strength, being un-diluted and clocking in at more than 100-proof. Traditional bourbons tend to be full-bodied, with a bit of tang. Cinnamon, vanilla, yeast, tobacco, allspice, honey, and chocolate are common flavors in traditional bourbon.

Higher Rye Bourbons

  • Wild Turkey, Russell’s Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Bulleit, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, Basil Hayden, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve

Some bourbons push the limits on being rye whiskey, yielding whiskey that is drier and spicier. Full-bodied and complex, with less sweetness; pepper, spice, sourness, fruitiness, cloves, and caramel can be especially prominent in the flavor profiles of high-rye bourbons.

Wheated Bourbons

  • Maker’s Mark, W.I. Weller, Van Winkle, Old Fitzgerald, Vintage Bourbon

Wheated bourbons include more wheat than rye or barley in the remainder of the mash bills, the result being a more muted bourbon that “can give the spirit pillowy softness,” (Imbibe) making them excellent sipping whiskies and useful for Old-Fashioneds and Mint Juleps — any drink that features the spirit. Soft, full-bodied and sweet; bread, honey, yeast, butter, and brown sugar are usually part of the flavor profile.

Single-Barrel Bourbons

  • Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, or any bottle marked as “single-barrel”

As Imbibe reports, single barrel bourbon is “a snapshot of a whiskey in one moment,” and tastes often vary between years and bottlings, even within the same brand. You’ll get a feel for what an “un-normalized,” or “un-blended” bourbon (i.e. one that hasn’t been mixed with other barrels to even out and control the flavor) will taste like . Spice, wood smoke, oak, leather, and fruit often pop up in the flavor profile.

American Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey is sharper, spicier, and drier than its Kentucky cousin, and is currently experiencing a comeback after a nearly a hundred years of reduced popularity. Rye is the result Irish and Scottish immigrants using American crops in lieu of malted barley: their supply was lacking, and so they supplemented their mashes with rye grain. The tradition rapidly took hold on the east coast, and rye remained the dominant American whiskey until Prohibition, during which many rye distilleries closed up shop and were dismantled, their buildings put to other uses in bustling eastern cities. According to Robert Hess, bourbon distilleries managed to survive because, being in the countryside, they simply shuttered their doors and waited out the dry spell. As a result, bourbon distilleries re-opened much faster than rye distilleries, giving them an edge in the market.

Rye’s mash bill contains at least 51% rye grain; the rest of the mash  often consists of corn and barley. Like bourbon, the grains are ground and then combined with water and yeast, then allowed to ferment. The fermented rye mash is then distilled to 160 proof, diluted and moved into barrels at 125 proof, and aged from there. If it’s been aged at least two years, you can call it “straight rye whiskey.” Many bourbon companies now produce a rye whiskey, as well, as they have the facilities and know-how to do it, as well as easy access to rye grain.

Rye Whiskies Include: Rittenhouse, Old Overholt, Sazerac, High West, Russell’s Reserve, Bulleit, Wild Turkey, Old Portrero, Redemption Rye, Catoctin Creek, Copper Fox, Whistle Pig, among others.

Imbibe has featured Rye a number of times in the past, including a taste-test of ryes that cost less than $50 (thank goodness!) in their March/April 2011 issue. A paraphrased version of the article follows (5 star rating system):

  • Russell’s Reserve 6-year: 4 stars — Very Good. Vanilla, caramel, earthy, peppery spice, grain. “Nicely balanced with a classic spiciness that softens with a few drops of water.”
  • rī(1) Rye Whiskey: 3 stars — Good. Sweet, vanilla, tropical fruit, corn oil, touch of spice, dry finish. “Could use a little more complexity and bold rye character, particularly for the price ($45).”
  • Sazerac 6-Year: 4 stars — Very Good. Honey, pecan, sweetness, peppery spice, nutmeg, grain, slightly smoky. “A splash of water allows the layers to unfold more while bringing out the grain notes even more.”
  • Copper Fox: 3 Stars — Good. Corn oil, buckwheat, toasty, apples, vanilla, spicy, smoky. “Interestingly nuanced but could be a little more balanced with more trademarked rye flavor.”
  • Old Overholt: 3 Stars — Good. Sweet, grainy, orange, honey, caraway, anise, buttery, peppery spice, rye, tace of vanilla and hazelnut. “Nice rye nose, but the flavors are a bit too slow to evolve.”
  • Rittenhouse 100: 4.5 Stars — Very Good to Exceptional. Sweet, rich, maple syrup, molasses, full, toasted grain, vanilla, peppery spice, warming. “Well-rounded and balanced with enough nuance and backbone to make it great for sipping or mixing; represents an excellent value.”

You can also take the more expensive route and check out their list of five rye whiskeys that are exceptional: “Ryed On,” web content for March/April 2011, Imbibe

Whiskey Cocktails

See the following article, “Cocktail 101: Five Essential Bourbon Cocktails,” from Micahel Dietsch at Serious Eats, for some starter drinks involving bourbon. Included are the Old-Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, Mint Julep, Boulevardier, and the Derby. All of them are relatively simple, though you’ll have to have a few extra bottles on hand for the Boulevardier and the Derby.

Photos by IJL

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3 comments on “Bourbon & Rye Primer

  1. Steven Wallace
    October 12, 2011

    Great night for some but a tough morning for others!

    • IJ Lauer
      October 13, 2011

      Only those who were taking shots of rye!
      The bartender’s morning was perfectly fine (I was just pouring the stuff!).

  2. dan
    January 11, 2012

    goodness of corn, anything

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