The bourbon renaissance of the last two decades first led to a bourbon shortage, but, lucky for us, it was followed by a bourbon boom! While that's good news for bourbon lovers, it does leave those shopping for spirits with a dilemma: Now that there are more brown liquors to choose from than ever before, how do you make a selection? The obvious answer is "drink what you like" but, when faced with dozens of bottles, it helps to ask the right questions.
Is It for Mixing or Sipping?
Some of the world's finest cocktails are made with bourbon. Where would we be as a civilization without the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the Boulevardier, or the Mint Julep? For mixed drinks, you just need a decent bourbon, not a top-shelf one. Save the good stuff for your after-dinner nightcap. Don't be shy about asking for advice from your friendly neighborhood liquor store employee. Chances are, they would love to tell you everything they know about whiskey, and they can definitely point you in the direction of something that you will like, no matter your price range.
What Is "the Good Stuff?"
When it comes to buying bourbon for sipping, it's possible to spend well over $100 on a bottle, but how do you know if what you're buying is really worth the money? The only way to know for sure is to taste it, and the best way to taste it is at an in-store sampling (ask your liquor store for their sampling lineup!), at a distillery's tasting room, or at a bar, where you can order a single pour before committing to a whole bottle. If you make friends with your bartender (and tip well!), they just may pour you small sample sips and give you a whole bourbon education for the price of a few drinks. This is much more likely to happen on a sleepy Tuesday than a jam-packed Saturday, so plan accordingly.
Where Does Your Bourbon Really Come From?
When we think of bourbon we like to hear folksy tales of family recipes and country roads, but the reality of modern American whiskey production doesn't have much to do with overall-clad grandfathers anymore. There is one company based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, that produces spirits to be sold under more than 50 different brand names. The distillery has been in operation since 1847 and has been owned at different times by Seagram's, Pernod Ricard, an offshore holding company called CL Financial, and, most recently, Midwestern Grain Products (which purchased the company in 2011 and renamed it MGP Distillery). Some familiar favorites—including Bulleit, George Dickel, Willett, Templeton, Angel's Envy, High West, Seagram's 7, and WhistlePig—all come from MGP.
Jim Beam, one of the U.S.'s other major bourbon distilleries, was bought by Japanese-based company Suntory in 2014. Now known as Beam Suntory, it owns all the Jim Beam-labeled bourbons as well as Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, and Maker's Mark. Brown Forman is another giant whiskey producer that owns Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Early Times, as well as Jack Daniel's (which calls itself "Tennessee Whiskey," not bourbon, even though it meets the legal definition of bourbon).
But just because a spirit is mass-produced doesn't mean that it's no good. These big companies employ some of the world's most skilled and experienced distillers, and are capable of making some extremely good whiskey. However, knowing where your bourbon is made does drive home the point that terms like "small-batch" and "craft distillery" don't have any real definitions, and mostly just serve as marketing terms. Suddenly that mythical country road in Kentucky seems far, far away. All the more reason to go back to that simple rule: Drink what you like.
What's Proof Got to Do with It?
Most bourbons on the shelf are 80 to 90 proof (40 to 45 percent alcohol). These are the bourbons best for cocktail mixing and sipping neat. High-proof bourbons (100 to 140-proof—that is, 50 to 70 percent alcohol) often taste better with a little water added. This category is sometimes called barrel-proof bourbon because, as the name implies, it is bottled directly from the cask, without being blended or watered down. By adding water, you're not diluting the experience, you're enhancing it, so you taste the all the subtle flavor notes, not just the "Aaahhh! Burning!" sensation of lots of alcohol cauterizing your taste buds. Add water a few drops at a time and notice how the flavors and aromas transform.