I love bourbon. I love my friends. I want to gather these important parts of my life into one spot, make the introductions and then give them some time to get to know each other.
I have no doubt they’ll get along beautifully. Maybe one day they’ll even grow to love each other, and it’ll become our routine to pass afternoons and evenings in each other’s company. That’s the dream, anyway.
The Task: Build a Bourbon Tasting Bar
My go-to, all-time favorite bourbon is Bulleit, so that was my starting point. Front and center on my tasting table: a giant, spotlighted bottle of Bulleit bourbon. As a creature of habit, though, I wasn’t sure in which direction to take the tasting next. If it was just me, I might line the table with six bottles of Bulleit, pat myself on the back and declare it happy hour. But that’s not the exercise, so I made some calls and got in touch with fellow Chicagoan and Diageo Master of Whisky Kyle McHugh. McHugh had some great advice, and together we built a mother of a bourbon tasting bar.
First, the Accoutrements
THE CONTAINER: Bourbon can be poured from the bottle directly into the mouth; it can also be sucked up from a cupped hand, but experts prefer to drink bourbon from the Glencairn whisky glass, which is shaped like an upside-down light bulb. The tapering at the top helps concentrate aromas (stick your nose in for rapid-fire sniffs) and the wide bowl showcases the color. Get yourself one Glencairn glass per taster, and no need to clean the glasses between different bourbons—just be sure to finish all your bourbon, young man, because it’s no new bourbon until you do.
THE H2O: Some folks take their bourbon room temperature and neat. Others like it cold and/or on the rocks and/or with some water (a splash of water actually enhances the complexity of flavors in whisky). Worry not; there is no right or wrong way to drink bourbon. The simple rule: drink the way you like to drink. That said, McHugh was emphatic about the purity of the additions.
Any water going into bourbon should be distilled or deionized, so go ahead and spring for some fancy bottled water to add to the bourbon tasting table as well as to make the ice. And as for the ice, remember: ice melts relative to the surface-area-to-volume ratio. Right? Right. Don’t rack your brain too hard: the best shape for ice is a sphere; second best, a perfect cube. Those shapes will melt the slowest, and there are special ice trays out there to make them, if you’re so inclined. Or, if you prefer to leave the heavy lifting to others, there are a number of specialty ice purveyors who can hook you up with some ice spheres and, while you’re at it, a handsome 3-D ice sculpture of you for the tasting table. Or, for the more modest, a six-foot-tall ice bust of the Colonel?
Now, Get Drinking
McHugh and I came up with a tasting menu of six bourbons, all of them 90 proof, so there’s some continuity there. The tour first takes us through three variations of readily available bourbons, hitting different spots on the bourbon mash spectrum—that is, how much corn, wheat, rye and so on gets cooked up making the booze. Next we step into three aged bourbons. Then, in case all of that doesn’t have you somersaulting into a tap dance quite yet, we finish up with a thoroughly fortifying bourbon cocktail.
The Bourbons, in Drinking Order:
1. MAKER’S MARK, 90 PROOF: Light and creamy, easy drinking, good flavor, maybe some fruit in there somewhere. It’s a nice way to start things off.
2. WOODFORD RESERVE, 90 PROOF: Another tasty bourbon, a bit oakier than the Maker’s Mark, more complex. Me gusta mucho.
3. BULLEIT, 90 PROOF: Yes, this is my bourbon. The rye definitely changes the flavor. It’s sweeter and earthier than the others. Mmmm, thirsty.
4. BULLEIT 10 YEAR, 90 PROOF: This is delicious. It’s a bit more complex, more robust, than the original Bulleit. It’s a nice variation on an old pal.
5. BARTERHOUSE 20 YEAR, 90 PROOF: Orphan Barrel, aka “lost, then found,” in the Old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville, Kentucky. This 20-year-old bourbon actually tastes older than the other bourbons, whatever the hell that means. It’s got deep flavors and complexity, and there’s a really nice sweetness there. It’s exceptionally tasty bourbon.
6. OLD BLOWHARD 26 YEAR, 90 PROOF: Another Orphan Barrel bourbon recently discovered; it has very limited distribution, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. McHugh explained that most bourbon goes bad after 20-plus years in a barrel, but sometimes, and not necessarily for any great reason, a batch makes it through successfully, and of those batches, some turn out extraordinary. This is one of those special cases. Old Blowhard is by far the tastiest of the lot (apologies to Bulleit, but I’ll be back). This is ultrasmooth bourbon, sweet and robust deliciousness in a glass.Done Tasting? Good. Time to Wash it Down with a Stiff Drink
At the end of the tasting table, we’ve got fresh glasses and everything you need for the perfect Manhattan. This recipe was taught to me by one of my favorite bartenders.
In a tumbler, and in this order:Add two to three splashes of Peychaud’s bitters. Add a half ounce of chilled sweet vermouth (vermouth is fortified wine, by the way, so the stuff goes bad quickly. Don’t dust off that old bottle; ditch it and grab a new one). Add two ounces of bourbon. Add ice spheres to the glass and stir with a bar spoon 20 times.Strain into a fresh glass, serve neat or add ice. Garnish with brandied cherries on a tiny plastic sword.
With the tasting done and Manhattans in hand, the group now has official permission to assume Dockers khaki ad positions and begin discussing bourbon, sexual encounters and the meaning of life.