Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Big Time Flavors in Small Batch Bourbons

If local bars are any indication, a growing number of Chicagoans are turning the vodka corner and re-discovering a quintessentially American spirit—bourbon. Not just any bourbons, though. Like the handcrafted wines and micro-brew beers that came before them, small batch bourbons have redefined the bourbon selections of a growing number of Americans.

These days, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that any spirit other than vodka exists. While I enjoy an occasional Cosmopolitan, sometimes I prefer a drink made with liquor packing a heavier flavor punch. After all, vodka is judged on its smoothness and relative lack of flavor, which makes it ideal for mixing, but hardly the spirit of choice if you’re in the mood for a cocktail with backbone.

Moreover, given that the dollar has all the heft of say a feather duster, prices for popular European spirits have grown increasingly higher and the time has never been more ideal for seeking spirits distilled a little closer to home. Though our runaway love affair with vodka hardly seems to be waning, small batch bourbons represent a welcome addition to the contemporary pantheon of popular spirits.

A Little Bourbon Background

Like the renowned thoroughbred horses, bourbons largely spring from Kentucky where they were first distilled in the late 1700’s. Bourbon County, in the central Bluegrass Region, served as the principal embarkation point for liquor headed down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans (winding up in Bourbon Street bars and points beyond). Barrels departing the county, stamped with its name, resulted in whiskies from the area being referred to as bourbons. Today, bourbon doesn’t have to originate in its namesake county, but must meet certain criteria.

For starters, bourbon must be made with primarily corn and aged for a minimum of two years in new, white oak barrels that have been charred. To create the spirit, distillers employ the sour mash method in which backset from a previous distillation is used. The backset gives each bourbon batch relatively consistent flavor, a process not dissimilar to using starter when making sourdough bread.

Virgin oak barrels, a requisite for production, remain pricey and hardly the sort of thing you find stocked at Home Depot. Requiring time, care and skill, barrel-making contributes significantly to the overall cost of bourbon.

In the 1970’s, bourbon fizzled, a trend that continued for nearly two decades. In 1988, Booker Noe, grandson of legendary Jim Beam, released Booker’s True Barrel, the first small batch bourbon. Bottled straight from the barrel and intended for friends and family, the spirit was made available worldwide within a few short years, uncorking the small batch bourbon renaissance.

Within a few years, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark established themselves as the largest “small batch” brands by creating mellow, smooth, flavored bourbons. Other smaller distillers set up shop, most in Kentucky, and began producing even smaller batches. Names such as Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Van Winkle, and ever-smaller brands joined Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark on bar shelves.

Not Your Grandpa’s (or Grandma’s) Bourbon

If there’s a ground zero for small batch bourbon in the city, it is decidedly Delilah’s, a North Side institution. While house-spun rock may not at first seem the ideal match for bourbon-sipping, this Lincoln Avenue watering hole has earned a national reputation for its selection of around 50 bourbons and its small batch-savvy owner. If a few thimblefuls of bourbon are your limit, owner Mike Miller recommends a jigger of the extremely rare Jimmy Russell Tribute which runs $16 per shot. For those with budding bourbon tastebuds, sample Delilah’s house brand 10-year made by Van Winkle for a more economical $6 per shot.

While many small batcher’s pack enough flavor to be drunk neat, flavorful options abound. In the Gold Coast, urban-slick Syn offers five options and a Matt-hattan, a top drawer version of the classic mixed with Woodford Reserve ($9). Syn co-owner Scott Smith has seen an uptick in small batch sales and Woodford is currently the club’s top-seller. At nearby hang Elm Street Liquors, patrons can savor the Debutante—Knob Creek, grapefruit juice, honey, and Laurent-Perrier Demi-Sec. In Wicker Park, Rodan updates a classic with its Ginger Julep ($5.50) concocted with ginger tea, bourbon and a mint leaf. At the Bungalow Lounge on west Belmont, specials concocted with bourbon include mint juleps, Manhattans and bourbon ball martinis—all created with Woodford Reserve.

Bourbon as Apertif

Getting into the spirit, restaurants have begun stocking small batch bourbons. Just off Michigan Avenue, tony Tru leads the pack with its house brand bourbon created with Woodford Reserve—which offers custom barrels and bottling. A few blocks away, Sofitel’s Le Bar offers a handful of small batcher’s, as does nearby Allen’s, which offers five, including a 16 year A. R. Hirsch, the ideal apertif before sitting down to a meal of the restaurant’s renowned venison or other game specials.

Given the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lawry’s recently hosted a special dinner. Consisting of four courses paired with complementary bourbons, the menu took inspiration from the early explorers’ favorite spirit. In their honor, diners sipped Basil Hayden’s, Makers Mark, Booker’s True Barrel, and a jigger of smooth Woodford Reserve, paired with apricot and cherry bread pudding with a—you guessed it—bourbon sauce.

A Bourbon of One’s Own

For a bourbon-lover, there is perhaps no better city than Chicago. Given the relative proximity of bourbon country and our fondness for the brown spirit, Chicago has an edge on New York and L.A. when it comes to appreciating this essentially American spirit.

If you live in Chicago, acquiring small batch bourbon hardly demands the effort exhibited by early fans Lewis and Clark. Modern sippers merely need visit a local watering hole, restaurant or liquor store. And I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to visit a super store, it’s not going to be Costco—but Sam’s or Binny’s which boast some of the most extensive bourbon selections in the country.

My discussions with bourbon aficionados, representatives and producers yielded a few clear conclusions. While Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark came across as clear leaders in the larger batch bourbon category, I now know the small batcher’s I plan to pick up or order while out. Van Winkle bourbons, though somewhat rare, represent obvious favorites. And Ridgemont Reserve 1792—while hardly the price of a six-pack—represents a clear value in comparison to some of the truly micro brands, such as the wickedly-tasty and uber-rare Black Maple Hill, that run between $80 and $225 a bottle.

Bourbon serves as antidote to higher priced imported spirits affected by the anemic dollar. So the next time you experience price-induced vertigo when liquor-shopping, head for the bourbon aisle. Along with distinguished pedigree and more reasonable prices, you’ll enjoy rich brown color, smooth, vaguely-sweet, and assuredly flavor-packed bourbon.

Though I didn’t discover any organic bourbons while researching this story, I did learn that the spirit is an entirely natural product, its sole ingredients consisting of grain, water, yeast and whatever bleeds into it from the barrel oak during aging. Unlike a fine cabernet, though, bourbon doesn’t age in the bottle. Once the spirit has left the barrel, its flavor profile has reached full maturity. So when you buy a bottle, drink up.


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