Welcome to Alcohol Geography, Playboy.com’s monthly attempt to educate you, our loyal readers, on the finer points of where your favorite poisons originate and the natural topography that inspires a distinct adventure for your seasoned tastes. From Skye and Speyside malts in Scotland to the vodkas of Russia, get ready to be the ultimate drink connoisseur.
Though the barrel-aged spirit, distilled from corn, can be made just about anywhere in America (it does have to be made there, or so said the U.S. Congress in 1964), any Bluegrass-born boy will tell you that if you ain’t drinking Kentucky bourbon, you ain’t drinking bourbon.
But that’s neither here nor there, really (though denying it will get you punched in the mouth in places like Lawrenceburg). Though it’s reported that nearly 97 percent of all bourbons are made within a few miles of Bardstown, Kentucky, the true legal requirements for bourbon consist of only a few basic parameters: it has to be aged in a new, charred oak barrel and distilled to at least 80 proof and no more than 160. No minimum duration for the aging process is in place, but any bourbon aged for two years or more and containing no added coloring or flavor can be considered straight bourbon (though it doesn’t have to be) and anything aged over four years doesn’t have to indicate the year.
But that’s all very boring stuff for a spirit that’s supposedly for the rough–and-tumble type, the hard-drinking men (and women) of places like Harlan County, Harrisburg and the hills that are usually alive with more than just the sound of music. This is Kentucky, after all; connoisseurs are usually straight country, people who don’t much care for facts and figures or wordy writers holding up the fucking fun and good times.
So we’ll quit digressing. The following bourbons are the cream of the crop, the best of the best from the Bluegrass state.
Brand: Maker’s Mark
Retaining the original spelling of “whisky” on all his bottles, Bill Samuels was perhaps doing more than simply carrying the torch of his Scottish ancestry; what Maker’s lacks in hillbilly heat, that proper punch punctuating most bourbons, it more than makes up for in its silky smoothness, resembling a refined scotch more than any backwater blend.
Flavor: Comparatively refined from its redneck relatives, Maker’s Mark is mellow, medium-bodied bourbon defined more by its delicate, subtle spice and floral notes than its knock-you-down-drunk Kentucky kick. A good introduction for first-timers, but nothing to shake a stick at for the not-so novice.
Brand: Wild Turkey (Rare Breed)
“What’s the bar whiskey, Ricky Lee?”
“For everyone else in this dump it’s Four Roses…but for you I think it’s Wild Turkey.”
Immortalized over time in the works of Stephen King, David Foster Wallace and, of course, the Good Doctor himself, Wild Turkey has in recent years toned down its reputation as a hard drinking whiskey, opting instead to become something a little more sophisticated, but still: this is Kentucky shine refined.
Flavor: The Rare Breed is barrel proof, clocking in at 108, but with a surprisingly smooth taste, long finish and full body. It’s thick, almost heavy, with hints of dark chocolate and orange, peppercorn and caramel. It’s not quite as complex as the former sentence suggests, but this is bourbon, not scotch; we’re not necessarily looking for complexity.
Brand: Knob Creek
Named after the childhood home of one Abraham Lincoln, Knob Creek embodies what it means to be a small batch bourbon, a masterful feat considering it comes from a company as large as Jim Beam. Aged for nine years and bottled at an honest 100 proof, the added time and care make for muscly maturity.
Flavor: Knob Creek is one of those whiskeys that doesn’t even have to touch the tongue to be imposing; its aroma ignites, maybe overpowers the senses with an intoxicating richness. Textured, sweet and woody, all of which are reflected in its copper color, Knob Creek is, quite simply, a cut above the rest.
Brand: George T. Stagg
Little known outside the South, George T. Stagg is the kind of stuff that’ll put hair on your chest (and, when applied directly, would probably burn it right off). Distributed at barrel proof by the Buffalo Trace Distillery and let sit for no less than 15 years, this is the bourbon of men.
Flavor: Words don’t really allow for the full flow of emotions that come with the Stagg; full-bodied, rich, complex, maybe even complicated, with a finish that goes on forever and a day. Oaky (without being woody), sweet (without being obnoxious), tannic (without being acidic), George T. Stagg is at once undefined and ubiquitous. Transcendent.
Brand: Noah’s Mill
Another out-of-market mash, Noah’s Mill is not a well-travelled whiskey but not because it couldn’t be. One of Kentucky’s best kept secrets, this true small batch, barrel proof bourbon varies from vintage to vintage but never fails to disappoint; at 114 proof, how could it?
Flavor: Adding water brings out some lighter aromas from this beast, but straight it’s an at times convoluted coming together of cold, clean perfection and startling warmth. Confused? Don’t be; a few glasses of Noah’s Mill should clear that right up.