Bourbon is an American treasure. Officially so. A 2007 bill sponsored by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning declared September National Bourbon Heritage Month, but really, it should be every month. If you didn’t indulge enough during September it’s high time you enjoyed a dram or three of America’s native spirit. With that in mind, here are seven old-school Kentucky bourbons to taste, each with a big role in the spirit’s history.
The most recognizable name in bourbon was actually the fourth generation of his family to make whiskey: James B. “Jim” Beam’s great-grandfather Jacob grew corn that he distilled on the family farm in the late 1700s, and his father and grandfather (both named David) expanded the business before he took over in 1894. And it has stayed in the family: Jim Beam’s son and grandson both served as master distiller, and his great-grandson Fred Noe runs the show today. Selling more than six million cases annually, Jim Beam is the world’s favorite bourbon. The white-labeled original offers plenty of vanilla aroma and a bit of spice, with subtle oak notes. The longer-aged Black Label (8 years old) and Signature Craft (12 years old) bottlings crank up the wood but keep the same basic flavor palette.
For most of the 1800s, distilleries pretty much only sold bourbon by the barrel—you could have a glass at a tavern or fill up your own jug at the local general store. That changed in 1870 when a Louisville pharmaceutical salesman named George Garvin Brown started selling whiskey sealed in glass bottles at the warehouse to prove to drinkers that it hadn’t been adulterated. It’s a testament to the genius of Brown’s idea that his brand still exists today. (It was even produced and bottled during Prohibition “for medicinal purposes”.) Old Forester is one of the best bargains on the bourbon shelf; it features fruit, vanilla and malty chocolate notes, along with lots of oak.
Four Roses’ sad tale shows how a giant corporation nearly wiped out a great bourbon. In the decades after Prohibition, Four Roses was the top-selling bourbon in America. All was going well until the brand’s then-owner, Seagram, had the bright idea to change the bourbon into a lower-quality blended whiskey utilizing the company’s Canadian stocks. Suddenly, Four Roses wasn’t the best-selling bourbon in America anymore. (The company did continue making bourbon during this time, which it sold as Four Roses in Europe and Asia.) Thankfully, in 2002, the Japanese brewery Kirin bought Four Roses and restored the bourbon to its former glory. All three bottlings (Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel) have subtle spice, with buttery honey, toffee and butterscotch flavors.
Jim Beam isn’t the only bourbon dynasty under the Beam name. Jim’s nephew Earl also went into the distilling business, working for Heaven Hill, which makes both the Evan Williams and Elijah Craig brands, among others. Today, Earl’s son Craig and his grandson Parker are its master distillers. (By the way, Evan Williams, the man, opened Kentucky’s first commercial distillery in 1783. Evan Williams, the whiskey, uses his name but wasn’t introduced until after World War II.) It has a bit more sweetness than many other bourbons at its price level, with caramel and soft spice flavors.
All bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, but the other grains used are a big determinant of its flavor. Rye, the more common secondary grain, makes for a spicy bourbon, while wheat gives distinctive sweetness. Today, wheated bourbons, including the famed Pappy Van Winkle bottlings are some of the most sought-after, and that’s all thanks to Maker’s Mark. Founder Bill Samuels, Sr., created with the wheat-heavy recipe, but his wife Margie is largely responsible for Maker’s Mark’s success as a brand—she came up with the name, as well as the idea to dip each bottle in the now-iconic red wax. Maker’s is of course quite sweet, with lots of rich fruit and toasty caramel, but it also has some spice and malt notes.
The most famous last name in bourbon distilling after Beam has to be Russell. And that’s due almost entirely to one man: Jimmy Russell, who has been working at the Wild Turkey distillery since 1954. Russell is about to turn 80 and shows no signs of slowing down, though his son, Eddie, has worked with him since 1981 and holds the title of associate master distiller. Thanks to high rye content, the spirit is nice and spicy, with vanilla and citrus in the background. The 81-proof bottling is a bit fruitier, while its 101-proof counterpart really cranks up the spice.
Thanks to the rising popularity of cheap blended whiskies Canada (see the Four Roses fiasco, above) and then the dominance of vodka (Cosmos for everybody!), bourbon was at a real low point in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Sales dwindled, and things looked bleak. Well, the seeds for bourbon’s comeback were sown in 1984, when Buffalo Trace master distiller Elmer T. Lee decided to pick out a single barrel from his warehouse that tasted especially good and bottle its contents all by themselves. (Usually, dozens or even hundreds of barrels are mixed together before bottling.) Lee named the experiment after Albert Blanton, who had been Buffalo Trace’s president through Prohibition and into the 1950s, and the entire highly lucrative category of single-barrel bourbon was born. The whiskey does vary from batch to batch, but in general it’s sweeter than most other rye-containing bourbons, with orange, cinnamon and cherry notes, all tempered by some nice oak.
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.