When we closed down our bird-hunting/trout-fishing cabin, Andy’s Acres, for the winter we said a solemn goodbye to several departed friends—friends whose presence had unfailingly warmed our souls and buoyed our spirits. They’d given the last full measure of devotion, and their names should not be forgotten. Hail and farewell, then, to Jeff, Mark, Craig, and Woody.
Or, to cite their full names: Jefferson’s Reserve, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and Woodford Reserve Double-Oaked. I’m pretty sure there was another Woodford Reserve variant—a different “expression,” as the cognoscenti say—that bit the dust, also. Possibly a bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed, too; I’m a little fuzzy about that. The soldiers still standing, but in a depleted state, include Knob Creek 9-Year-Old, Old Forester 100 Proof, Maker’s Mark original, and yet another jug of MM Cask Strength.
There’s a bottle of Scotch (Famous Grouse) and a bottle of Irish (Jameson’s) in the back of the cupboard, too, but it’s been a long time since they got any love. Bourbon, by a landslide, is the tipple of choice among the Andy’s Acres crew. There isn’t even a close second.
Don’t get me wrong: We consume plenty of beer and wine, too, but those are different animals. Wine complements dinner; beer is what we drink to slake our thirst after a long day toiling in the trenches of sport, also to ensure that we’re hydrated, sort of, when it comes time to pour the bourbon. There’s a reason it’s called “sippin’ whiskey,” not “gulpin’ whiskey.”
Some of us like to sip it neat, others on the rocks. My preference is for a handful of ice cubes, no more than three or four, and a twist of lemon (just the peel, I mean). High alcohol-content bourbons like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, which can test at a sizzling 126 proof, generally profit from some dilution, whether by adding a splash of water or simply letting the ice melt for a few minutes. But that, like pretty much everything else about bourbon and how you take it, is ultimately a matter of personal taste.
In any event, it’s when the bourbon’s been poured that Andy Cook and I clink our glasses together and one or the other of us says “It goes without saying.” And what is “it,” exactly?
That it’s damn hard work being a sportsman, of course.
What makes a bourbon?
Although based on an admittedly small sample size and a certain amount of inductive, from-the-part-to-the-whole reasoning, we tend to believe that the bourbon collection at Andy’s Acres is the best in our neck of northern Wisconsin. One of the beauties of the location is that it’s in a lightly populated and decidedly un-touristy area, so it’s hard to imagine that the local watering holes offer much of a selection. They’re likely to have Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s, but beyond those two old war horses all bets are off.
Jack Daniel's, by the way, while labeled as "Tennessee Whiskey," is, in fact, bourbon. In the words of bourbon authority Fred Minnick: "Jack Daniel’s chooses not to call itself bourbon, but the historic brand applies for federal label approval under the class of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is listed as straight bourbon in the North American Free Trade Agreement. And if you actually pull a high ranking Jack member aside and really push them on it, they will confirm that “technically” it is a bourbon."
To qualify as bourbon, the mashbill—the grains comprising the “mash” in the initial fermentation process—must consist of at least 51% corn; the clear liquor that comes out of the still has to be aged in charred oak barrels; and the brown liquor that comes out of the barrels has to be bottled at no less than 80 proof. That’s it, other than one or two abstruse technicalities that no one who isn’t a distiller gives a damn about.
A few notes on terminology are in order here. To be labeled as “straight” bourbon, the whiskey has to age for a minimum of two years. “Bottled-in-bond” means a bourbon produced by a single distillery in a single season, aged at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof. To some extent the BIB designation is an indicator of quality but it’s by no means a guarantee; you still have to taste the stuff.
“Barrel proof” and “cask strength,” which are essentially synonymous, signify bourbons bottled at the same proof, typically between 110 and 130, at which they went into the barrels to be aged; most bourbons are diluted following aging to a proof point in the 86-to-100 range. “Single-barrel” bourbon, as the name implies, means that all the bourbon in the bottle came from the same barrel; most bourbons are blends of different barrels—and, more importantly, different ages of barrels—made under the direction of a master distiller.
The designation “small batch,” which would seem to connote an enhanced level of artisanal craftsmanship, is just a marketing ploy. It’s meaningless, in other words.
In addition to the judgment, experience, and skill of the distiller, the main determinants of a bourbon’s flavor and character are the mashbill and the amount of time it ages. The mashbills of most bourbons consist of just three ingredients: corn (always the highest percentage, as noted previously), rye (typically but not universally second-highest), and malted barley. That characteristically spicy, tingly-on-the-tongue note you get from bourbon comes from the rye; the higher the percentage of rye, the more pronounced that spicy note will be.
There are some bourbons, however, in which wheat replaces rye on the mashbill. These “wheated bourbons,” which have a somewhat softer, sweeter flavor profile, include the entire Maker’s Mark family and also Pappy Van Winkle. Hideously expensive, impossible to find, and spoken of by those who seek it in hushed and worshipful tones, “Pappy,” as it’s known, is the Holy Grail of bourbons. I’ve never tasted it and never expect to, which puts me in the same class as about 99.9% of the people who’d describe themselves as bourbon-lovers.
A final word about mashbills. While obsessives geek out over them—they’re kind of like a secret handshake that bourbon snobs use to establish their bonafides—they’re not something you really need to concern yourself with. You can look them up on the distillers’ websites if you’re curious but unless you’ve got nothing better to do I wouldn’t bother.
A word about age
Traditionally many bourbons, and almost all of the higher-shelf ones, were “age-stated”—that is, they were labeled as “8-Year-Old,” or “10-Year-Old,” or whatever. But over the past decade or so, as bourbon became a “thing” and demand for it soared, a lot of distilleries found themselves running low on the older barrels needed to blend their age-stated bourbons. Because an age statement signifies the youngest bourbon that’s part of the blend, and because marketing what used to be an 8- or 9-year-old bourbon as a 4- or 5-year-old bourbon was unlikely to be met with much enthusiasm by the drinking public, age statements began to disappear.
Within recent memory, for example, you could buy a fifth of Elijah Craig Small Batch with a 12-year age statement for around $25—one of the greatest bargains in the history of bourbon. About 4-5 years ago the age statement quietly went away, and while EC Small Batch is still very good bourbon for the money, it’s not quite up to the previous standard.
This is not to say that age-stated bourbons (affordable ones, I mean) aren’t available. As I’m writing this, in fact, there’s a bottle of Knob Creek 9-Year-Old and a bottle of Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old in my home liquor cabinet. But they’re not there because they’re age-stated; they’re there because I enjoy them, and it just so happens that they carry age statements.
The conventional wisdom in the bourbon camp, of course, is that older is better. While this holds true as a general rule, as I said before you still have to taste the stuff. The pricetag on a lot of older, age-stated bourbons can be pretty puckering, too.
Getting a Bourbon Education
You can make yourself dizzy exploring the online bourbon world but there are a couple of YouTube channels, “The Mash and Drum” and “It’s Bourbon Night,” that are worth checking out. The shows devoted to “best value” and/or “must have” bourbons are particularly informative; with rare exceptions I’ve found their recommendations to be spot-on, and it’s also kind of validating when their choices match up with bourbons that are already among my established go-to’s.
The host of “Mash and Drum,” a dude named Jason who looks like he could be Mob muscle, can be uncomfortably in-your-face at times. Still, he’s encyclopedically knowledgeable. The married co-hosts of “It’s Bourbon Night,” on the other hand, Sarah and Chad, take a more light-hearted, guilelessly enthusiastic approach. (Chad can be a bit of a goof.) They know what they’re talking about, though.
Mucking around online I came across a “Bourbon Tasting Kit” that included a checklist of 37 possible aromas/flavors, from caramel and vanilla (the two dominant bourbon notes) to baking spices like cinnamon and clove, fruits like orange, cherry, and date, toasted oak, coffee, and on, and on, and on. Personally I take all this with a large grain of salt, my feeling being (again) that the proof, so to speak, is in the pudding.
Besides, it’s a lot of fun to try different bourbons and decide which ones are the keepers, which ones you can take or leave, and which ones are the stinkers. It’s not unlike hunting new cover or fishing new water—a pleasurable experience in and of itself, regardless of the result. The thrill of discovery, and all that.
Budget obviously plays a role here, but as someone whose wife gives him the stink-eye when he spends more than $35 on a bottle of booze I’m happy to report that you can get a fifth of damn good bourbon for around 25 bucks, at least where I live. There are four in this category that I think are standouts:
- Wild Turkey 101: If you keep only one bourbon on hand, this is the one it should be. It rises to any occasion and never fails to satisfy. Indispensable.
- Elijah Craig Small Batch: This 94-proof bourbon hits all the right notes. I keep a pint of it in my boat bag in case of an emergency. Somehow, there’s always an emergency.
- Old Forester 100 Proof: A stunningly good pour that punches way above its weight. It has a beautiful deep-caramel color, too.
- Old Granddad 114: This high-rye bourbon has a distinctively spicy flavor profile. It tends to fly off the shelves so if you see a bottle, buy it. Better yet, buy two.
Moving up the price ladder, the two age-stated bourbons I mentioned previously, Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old (90 proof) and Knob Creek 9-Year-Old (100 proof), are reliably excellent. At a slightly higher price-point, Maker’s Mark 46 (94 proof) has the refined quality of a fine cognac—and is dangerously drinkable.
Beyond these seven, you can’t go wrong with any of the bourbons memorialized at the beginning of this discussion. In particular, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which runs around $45 and weighs in at a muscular 116.8 proof, delivers a hell of a lot of bang for the buck.
Soon it’ll be time to replenish the cupboard at Andy’s Acres. Charged with a sense of anticipation that feels vaguely illicit, this process begins when we open up the place in April, continues intermittently over the course of the summer, and hits full stride in fall when usage, and bourbon consumption, peak. The old reliables will be on hand, of course, but there are always some new upstarts that make their debuts, too—and there’s only one way to find out if they deserve a spot in the starting rotation.
Lord, it’s hard work being a sportsman ...