Be a Caskmaster: Breaking Out the Bourbon

May 5, 2011


If vodka is the utilitarian fur cap of the spirits world, bourbon is its big-brim, sassy Derby hat. And that’s not just because bourbon flows faster at the Kentucky Derby (this Saturday) than the prized thoroughbreds on the track.

“It conjures images of lazy summer days,” says Megan Coyle, mixologist at Hank’s Oyster Bar (1624 Q St. NW; 202-462-4265) in Dupont Circle, where springy mint juleps go tart with pureed fresh strawberries. Like its native Kentucky’s sweeter-than-molasses residents, “bourbon whisky is an awfully friendly liquor,” she says.

Bourbon, with its flavors of vanilla and caramel, brings more to a party than buzz. Indeed, Southern gentlemen aren’t the only ones who choose the mellow sip as their accessory of choice, whether headed to the fireplace or the veranda and whether drinking it on the rocks or in a frosty julep.


Credit the spirit’s storied past. “Sipping American whisky is like going to a museum,” Coyle says. “You’re really drinking history.” In the 1790s, George Washington sent the Continental Army to stomp out the Whiskey Rebellion, a settler’s revolt against taxes on whisky production that were instated to help fund the revolution. (G.W. was himself a rye man.) The father of our country brokered a deal with the rebels that offered incentives for those who moved to Kentucky (then part of Virginia), where Thomas Jefferson doled out land to folks who promised to grow corn. And in those days, if you gave a man some land, well, he’d distill whisky and drink for life.

Legend says that around that same time, a Kentucky reverend by the name of Elijah Craig transported his corn whisky to New Orleans in charred oak barrels, naming the sweet hooch for his native Bourbon County. Today the term “bourbon” implies a few hard-and-fast rules: The spirit must be made from a grain mash of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years and, thanks to a 1964 congressional resolution, made in America (most still comes from Kentucky).

“We own bourbon, so we can be badasses about it,” says Duane Sylvestre, head mixologist at Georgetown’s Bourbon Steak (2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-944-2026), which stocks more than 30 types of bourbon. In other words: Start humming “American Pie,” because drinking bourbon is more patriotic than, say, the Donald’s ‘do. It’s a good value too, says Dan Searing, co-owner of Columbia Heights’ Room 11 (3234 11 St. NW; 202-332-3234).

That includes the wide spectrum of bourbons — from Jim Beam White Label, which Searing likens to a “great mass-market paperback,” to pricier small-batch and single-barrel varieties (“like oil paintings”). Flavors skew sweet to spicy depending on the mash. Rye gives a fiery kick (think Bulleit and Russell’s Reserve); wheat offers a smooth finish (try Maker’s Mark or Old Weller Antique). Also worth noting on the bottle: Only bourbons between 2 and 4 years old must list their ages, and proofs start at 80 and range as high as 160 (drinker beware).

“I think people take bourbon for granted, but for everyday spirit drinking, it’s really hard to beat,” Searing says. “It’s just really delicious.”

The Bourbon Backstory
First introduced to D.C. by Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, above, in the early 1800s, the bourbon-powered mint julep has been called the “nectar of the gods.” (A 1937 letter by military hero Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. waxed poetically about it: “It is a heritage of the Old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.”)

Juleps and Beyond
When it comes to summery bourbon cocktails, the mint julep handily wins the roses. The boozy snow cone — a quarter-ounce simple syrup muddled with a few sprigs of mint and topped with crushed ice and two ounces bourbon — is usually served in a sterling silver cup. Traditionalists don’t dare rejigger the julep, yet the classic recipe inspires plenty of spinoffs. Think basil instead of mint plus fresh lemon juice, suggests Megan Coyle of Hank’s Oyster Bar. Or follow the lead of the Source, where juleps go Asian with shiso leaf instead of mint. Above all, heed the advice of Mike Isabella, chef/owner of coming-soon Graffiato in Penn Quarter: “Keep drinks fresh and simple, and let the bourbon highlight everything else.”

» Mint juleps don’t do it for you? Muddle citrus with sugar and mint, skip the fancy silver cups and ta-da! You’ve made a whisky smash — “the lazy man’s cocktail,” says Bourbon Steak’s Duane Sylvestre. Guzzle, muddle, repeat.

» Dubbed “the golden age of Hollywood in a glass,” the Brown Derby dates to the 1930s, named for the famous L.A. restaurant by the same name. Served up, tart grapefruit juice complements sweet bourbon and honey syrup.

» At Bourbon Steak, Sylvestre pays tribute to corn-pushing founding father Thomas J. with The Jefferson, a blend of bourbon, Creme de Mure, Carpano Antica formula and Fee Brother’s Old-Fashioned Bitters garnished with lemon peel.

Taste Test
Bourbon: not just for juleps anymore. Though most varieties take well to sugar and mint fortification, much of the stuff sips well, too. To set up a taste test of six varied bourbons, we relied on the counsel (and shelf stock) of Joe Riley, the well-regarded fine spirits manager at Ace Beverage (3301 New Mexico Ave. NW; 202-966-4444).

» Four Roses
($17.49; 80 proof)
Easy breezy bourbon. This mild sip struck tasters as smooth on the way in with a slight peppery backbite on the way down. Not so much a sipping bourbon, its bitter edge balances citrus cocktails, says mixologist Duane Sylvestre.

» Buffalo Trace
($20; 90 proof)
Maybe it’s the big-shouldered American bison on its label, but this broad bourbon, with citrus notes, reminds us of a loveable doof — sweet, fun and simple.

» Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10-year
($32; 90 proof)
Like a gruff TV archetype (think military dad), this amber bourbon barks with a sharp, strong-tongued first impression. (“Not bourbon-y enough,” said one taster who thought it tasted more like a rye whisky.)

» Rowan’s Creek
($38, 100.1 proof)
With hints of almond and a full, smoky taste up front, this full-bodied bourbon is one of Riley’s two favorites from the small-batch collection by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. “It’s the whole package,” said one taster. “Delicious,” agreed the rest.

» Old Weller Antique Original 107 Brand
($24; 107 proof)
“The original wheated bourbon” evokes the approachable and rich flavors that have made bargoers spin sonnets about Maker’s Mark. At 107 proof, this butterscotch-forward spirit packs a whole lot more punch than a Werther’s.

» Elijah Craig 12-year
($26; 94 proof)
Named for the 18th-century father of bourbon, this pleasantly complex sipper — a few tasters’ favorite of the lot — offers hints of vanilla, a dry finish and an “herbaceous” aroma. “For a 12-year-old bourbon, it’s a remarkably good value,” Searing says.

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky

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Stephen M. Deusner · May 5, 2011