Bourbon 101

Local expert weighs in: top picks for cheap, underrated bourbons

Bourbon is a whiskey made with at least 51 percent corn in the mash, which is fermented for a couple of days and then distilled and aged in new, charred oak barrels. After that, knowledge about this classic American spirit can grow a bit hazy. Does it have to be made in Kentucky? What's the difference between straight bourbon and the regular stuff? Do bourbons that come from a single barrel or a small batch of barrels really taste better than those from a larger sampling?

For answers, we turn to Tonya "Lenell" Smothers, a bourbon expert who stocks what she claims is the city's largest selection at her Red Hook liquor store, Lenell's.

Are there any common misperceptions about bourbon? People come in and have bar fights over what it's made from. The argument about Jack Daniels—is it bourbon, is it not? By law, it's not. [But] it's the image that it is. A lot of people misunderstand the American whiskey categories. It is made like a bourbon, but it's charcoal-filtered through sugar-maple charcoal in a way that bourbon isn't.

[And] bourbon is bourbon once it hits the barrel. A lot of people will say that bourbon has to be aged for two years. No, straight bourbon has to be aged for two years. But most of the bourbon you see on the shelf is straight bourbon.

What do you look for when tasting a bourbon? I'm looking for a balance between wood age and corn sweetness. Quality's always subjective. I don't really think there's any bad bourbon on the market.

Are there any bourbons made outside Kentucky? There's pretty much not any. It doesn't have to come from Kentucky, but as Parker Beam from Heaven Hill says, "It better damn well be if it's any good."

[But it does have] to come from Kentucky to say Kentucky on the label. It's the only state that can put its name on the label.

How long should bourbon be aged? What is the ideal number of years: Six? 10? Over 20? Everybody has their own personal preference; I don't get into preaching a right or a wrong. A lot of the distillers I talk to say that they prefer something around 10 years old, because of the balance of it. The longer it ages, the drier it gets, the more astringent it gets. People coming from a Scotch background will often lean toward an overaged bourbon because they're wanting a stronger, more powerful, smoky charcoal flavor. Bourbon's a new wood. There's no need to have a ton of 35-year-old whiskey. If you had a bourbon that was 35-years-old, it'd taste like shit.

How does the particular mix of grains in the mash affect the flavor? A higher percentage of corn, for example? Corn has a natural sweetness to it. The more corn you get, the more sweetness. All bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn, but most of them are made in the high 60s, low 70s.

And wheat makes it a little softer? A little softer, a little gentler whiskey. Rye offers spice, a little bite to it. Most of the bourbons have rye in the mash bill; only a handful have wheat. Maker's Mark is the one that people know the most as a wheated bourbon. The Van Winkle line, Rebel Yell, Old Fitzgerald—that's about it.

Does where you age the barrel in the warehouse actually make a difference? Yes, the top of the warehouse is of course hotter, so you get more intensity there. People will take a cross section of their warehouse, if they're not rotating barrels. The center is more consistent. The single barrels a lot of times come from the center.

Does it matter how much the barrel is charred? Most people are using a level three or four char—the higher the number, the deeper the char, the woodier the effect you get on the whiskey, of course. There's only one I have that's below three: the Jefferson's is a level two. It's definitely lighter than a lot of other whiskeys. Deeper than 3 or 4, I think that's when the wood flavor overpowers the whiskey.

Distilleries are quite protective over the specific strain of yeast they use too, right? Have their ever been yeast wars? Everybody has their own proprietary yeast. Some people cultivate their own. People used to go home with their yeast; it was such a sacred thing.

The Van Winkle family claims that Pappy Van Winkle gave Mr. Samuels his yeast strain to start Maker's Mark. I don't know if that's true or not.

Does the water in Kentucky influence the flavor? Whiskey tastes nasty when it has iron in it. That's the beauty of the limestone-influenced water in Kentucky. It's filtered out a lot of the iron. It also has a little bit of calcium, which aids in the fermentation process.

Some people use spring water—Maker's Mark, for example. But not all these folks are exactly pulling water from a stream.

But it sounds so good when you have the story about some dude who looks like Davy Crockett. Yeah, when you have the tour and there's the little stream in the backyard. Ha. I always tell people that there's a lot of marketing behind these brands. People will come in and think there's some old man coming down the mountain with a donkey and a barrel on it. I'm like, do you realize there's eight distilleries cranking out a ton of whiskey?

So it's really just a lot of branding. Yes. And you'll see on bottles, "X Y Z distillery". Half of those don't really exist as a distillery. They're just company names, label names.

Can bourbon drinkers really taste any difference in a small-batch or single-barrel bourbon? You can't taste a whiskey and go, "I know this is a small batch." Someone's bullshitting you if they say the can. Single barrel's the same thing. They do mix barrels to make most of the bourbons, that's where the term 'single barrel' came from, which is just picking one barrel.

The notion of doing the small batch, single barrel has brought more attention to bourbon and allowed it to compete more in the market with Scotch. If you think you're drinking something special, you think it tastes better.

What are some cheaper, underrated bourbons? G&W is like $11 for a liter bottle. Great bourbon, we use it for making cocktails quite a bit. Has a lot of spicy bite to it, probably has a lot of rye in the mash bill. It's being bottled in New Jersey; who knows exactly where the whiskey is coming from.

Very Old Barton is a six-year, 80 proof whiskey—rocks. Very, very smooth. We've turned a lot of people onto it. I love when people come in and are like, "I'm having a party, here's what I was thinking," and I'm like, "Hey, why don't you grab three or four bottles of the $11 liters and have a bourbon tasting." People respect that. [There's also] Bellows, which is made by Jim Beam. Very light, young whiskey. It's like $11, $11.50 for a liter." I tell people not to overlook the inexpensive bourbons. They're young, that's all. Four years old, typically.

Is it difficult to sell the pricier bourbons when personally you enjoy the cheap stuff as well? No, I mean, you definitely get more complexity with something that's got a little more age to it. Also, the whiskeys that a lot of times are going into these inexpensive bottles, they're not necessarily the best barrels coming out of the warehouses. So no, it's not hard to sell something with a little more price on it. But the beauty of bourbon is that you can get a fabulous bourbon without having to spend a fortune on it.

How do you prefer to drink your bourbon? Any way I can get it.

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