There’s never been a better time to drink Bourbon. Spurred on by the craft-cocktail revolution, this uniquely American spirit has seen production skyrocket, and the marketplace is dense with new offerings. Kentucky alone filled some 1,886,821 barrels in 2015, a 48-year record for the state that claims to be the spirit’s birthplace.

And that’s only one state. Bourbon can be called such as long as it is made from a base of 51 percent corn and aged in new, charred-oak barrels somewhere in the U.S. Today, distillers from
Alaska to Florida are producing these rich, caramel-hued spirits.

If you have a Bourbon obsession, you’re no doubt excited by the seemingly endless array of variations to taste and explore. However, if you don’t fanatically track the latest offerings, the scene can be maddeningly confusing. The truth is, the majority of Bourbons are made by just eight companies. So how much difference can there really be?

Plenty, says Sean Josephs, who runs Maysville in NYC and Kenton’s in New Orleans. Both restaurants boast some of the most extensive Bourbon lists in the country and Josephs makes his own, called Pinhook, as well. Changes in the ratios and sorts of grains in the blend are just the beginning, he says. The fermentation yeasts can have a major effect, as can the temperature and humidity in the rickhouse, where the barrels age.

“When we did barrel dump,” he says, referring to a recent visit to make a blend, “the differences between barrels were easy to see. And these are all barrels aging in the same position,” he adds. If he were dealing with casks aged on different floors of the rickhouse, the differences would be even more dramatic. “It reminds me of Champagne,” Josephs says.“Bourbon is really the art of tasting and blending.”

There’s age to take into account, as well. “We tend to reflexively think that older is better, but it’s not true. I find that the sweet spot is in the 5- to 8-year range; at 12 years, it becomes too much oak, too bitter.” Sometimes, even younger is better. “I think rye tastes better young,” he says. “It has more to offer when it’s young than other grains, and it has this sweet, candied licorice component.”

Proof is also crucial to how you perceive a Bourbon. “If you taste Jim Beam neat and Booker’s neat—that’s 80 versus 125 proof—Beam will seem smoother. But if you add ice and water, Booker’s will be smoother because it spent more time in barrel; it has more of those smooth, caramel flavors.”

As for price, he warns that just because a distillery is small and charging high prices doesn’t equal quality. “It’s like wine,” he says. “If a vineyard has been around for generations and owns land, it can make wine more affordably than the winemaker who’s just rolled into Napa Valley. Younger distilleries need to generate cash flow.” Only you can decide whether a product measures up to the price charged.

And what of the ultra-limited productions, the micro-cuvées that run into the hundreds of dollars? Good for you if you can afford them, but Josephs is not a fan. “I just think that’s not in the spirit of Bourbon,” he says. “It’s always been a humble spirit made from prominent crops.” And why pay so much if you can get great bottles for well under $100?

Whatever you order, take your time—and add an ice cube. “Ambient room temperature in the U.S. is pretty warm,” Josephs explains. “And you can taste how the Bourbon changes in the glass as the ice melts. You get a sense of an opening; the more it melts, the more you can get all these other flavors. That kind of experimenting helps you understand what sort of Bourbons you like.”

With that in mind, here’s an array of bottlings that, taken together, form a mini-Master Class in Bourbon. The first three explore variations in the “mashbill,” the recipe of grains that form the base; the next three explore other ways to burnish a Bourbon’s flavor.

Traditional Mashbill:
Buffalo Trace (90 proof, $35)

The standard blend for Bourbon these days is about 70 to 75 percent corn and equal parts rye and malted barley. “This is a bottle most people should have in their house,” says Josephs. “The entry level is so good.” Aged about nine years, Josephs says—more than most bottlings at the price—it’s  especially smooth and spicy, with a vanilla and brown sugar richness.

Wheated:
W.L. Weller Special Reserve (90 proof, $22)

Wheated Bourbon swaps out rye for wheat to make a mellow whiskey with a light caramel sweetness, almost delicate in body. This is one of the affordable standouts. “It’s the same wheated Bourbon that essentially becomes Pappy van Winkle,” says Josephs, referring to a cult favorite made by the same company.

High Rye Mashbill:
Bulleit (90 proof, $25)

Back in the late 1700s, rye was the main grain for whiskey, as corn was too valuable a foodstuff to distill. It still plays a large part in some Bourbons, like Bulliet, with 28 percent rye (plus corn and barley). One sip makes it clear why distillers call it the “flavor grain”: This is robust stuff, with plenty of dry spice and a dark caramel richness.

Age:
Henry McKenna 10-year Bottled in Bond (100 proof, $33)

“There’s not much aged whiskey today because we’ve drunk it all up,” Josephs explains. And it’s increasingly hard to find Bourbons “bottled in bond,” meaning they must be the product of a single vintage, aged in a federally bonded, supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. When the regulation was introduced in 1897, it was to establish a basic standard of quality; today, the attraction is more intellectual. “Before distillers had the ability to do large-scale blending, this would have been the way it was,” Josephs says. This is an exceptional example of an older Bourbon, lean and dry with lots of woody spice.

Barrel Finished:
Breckenridge Port Cask Finished (90 proof, $60)

In the last decade, American distillers have taken a page from whiskey distillers and are “finishing” their wares in casks that were once filled with other spirits or wines, like Port and Sherry, brandy, or even vermouth. This bottling, made in Colorado, is a good example of how the sweet, red fruit flavors of Port can add richness to Bourbon’s brown-sugar and wood spice notes. If you can’t find this one, look for Angel’s Envy Port Finish.

New Wave:
High West Whiskey Campfire (92 proof, $55)

Josephs likes to sneak this into tastings to show how diverse the Bourbon world has become. A blend of Bourbon, rye whiskey, and Scotch, this unorthodox blend came about after David and Jane Perkins, founders of this Utah distillery, had breakfast at Scotland’s Bruichladdich distillery, where honeydew melon was served in a peated whiskey sauce. It’s wild stuff, lightly sweet, fruity, and peaty, with an intense hit of wood smoke.

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