Bourbon is a liquor with a long history, but thanks to the revival of classic cocktails and alcohols, it's only now getting its time in the spotlight.
In 2012, whiskey sales outpaced sale increases for vodka, gin, tequila and other spirits for the first time at 3.6 per cent growth (this according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.). Much of that growth comes from the U.S. where bourbon was up 11.9 per cent last year, showing double-digit growth for the second year in a row.
But sale rates are higher for some brands: global sales growth for Maker's Mark was up 15 per cent last year, while the increase for premium brand Basil Hayden was 35 per cent, according to their manufacturers, Beam Inc. The trend has even hit Canada; in Ontario, sales of premium bourbons were up from the previous year 18 per cent (by dollars) in 2011.
"There was an old adage 'All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,'" bourbon enthusiast Flex Arafel says. Though the legal definition set in the 1960s allows it, some purists claim that bourbon that's not from Kentucky simply can't be the same, both because it's key to the culture in that state and simply because of geography.
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"Many claim the difference is the water. Kentucky distilleries typically are located near water sources that have been naturally filtered through limestone," he says.
But the increase in new distilleries across the United States and experimentation with the formula are also part of what is driving the spirit's growth. Whether you're a bourbon traditionalist or experimentalist, here are 15 ways to enjoy this classic American drink.
This Kentucky bourbon — with hints of vanilla, toffee and candied fruit — is distilled, aged and bottled at the world's most award-winning distillery. "The Buffalo Trace distillery located in Frankfort, KY, has a long history, but also is quite progressive and innovative in its approach to bourbon," Arafel says. "They experiment quite a bit with aging and recipes and will occasionally bring back older vintages."
Arafel recommends this distillery located in Versailles, KY, as a great one for bourbon newbies. "The bourbon [brand] is easy to drink and a great one to start with if you're new to the liquor," he says.
Their standard bourbon is a good choice, but look for this distillery's very special annual release (each year the company produces 10 different bourbons and turns one into a limited release).
This well-known bourbon, made by Jim Beam, is distilled with water from a spring-fed lake right on the distillery's grounds.
This Colorado distillery intentionally keeps its quantities low, making just three barrels each week. True to its name, the bourbon has tones of peach and other stone fruits.
Single Oak Project
One for the real connoisseurs: These bourbons were made from 192 barrels, coming from 96 specially picked American Oak trees. The barrels were filled with different recipes and stored in different conditions, therefore, each whiskey is different.
Old Weller Antique 107
This is a Kentucky bourbon, but it differs in that it uses wheat as its flavouring grain instead of the more-common rye, giving it a nuttier taste.
All bourbon must be aged, and straight bourbon must be aged for at least two years, though most are aged for four or more. This Ohio distillery ages theirs for only two and a half years. It also features spelt, a grain not usually used in bourbon production.
This limited-edition bourbon, distilled by Wild Turkey, has no water added after aging (most whiskeys are diluted at that point) which gives it a hefty proof of 110. Not for the weak!
Old Pogue 12-Year Master's Select
This is as Kentucky as bourbon gets — it's distilled in Maysville, the birthplace of the spirit. The distillery, left fallow after the second World War, was rebuilt in 2012 and its bourbon is now made from a recipe that hails from the Civil War era.
This Brooklyn-produced bourbon attempts to recreate the effect of Kentucky water in its bourbon by making its whiskey with water extracted directly from an upstate limestone mine.
Balcones True Blue 100-Proof
This Texas bourbon is made with blue corn and has more oil and less starch than the regular type.
A small-batch bourbon that was at the forefront of the movement to bring that style of whiskey back, true Knob Creek fans can create a custom label for their bottles.
This Kentucky classic is made from a recipe that dates back to 1796 — this bourbon is nearly as old as the United States itself. It uses twice as much rye as traditional bourbons, which gives it a special kick.
For a twist, try a beer aged in bourbon barrels. This Kentucky brew is aged for six weeks in barrels from some of the best distilleries in the state.