a kentucky gentleman’s introduction to bourbon basics

Over the last several years, a quiet but profound revolution has taken place. Dynasties have been toppled, economies have been shattered and the world has been fundamentally altered by the emergence of a new King.


I’m speaking, of course, of Bourbon.


The world has recently realized what we Kentucky Gentlemen have known for decades – that there is simply no finer way to fill a glass than with a spirit that’s spent the last several years (or more if you can stand to wait) aging in newly charred oak. Bourbon, especially small batch and single-barrel varieties, have enjoyed a recent boom all over the world, and who better than a native son to give you the foundations of our native spirit? I will introduce the quintessential bluegrass spirit in a series of posts, beginning with the very basics.


Fundamental to an understanding of bourbon whiskey is a broader understanding of whiskey itself. There are an overwhelming subset of whiskies (Canadian, English, Irish, Japanese, Scotch, etc.), and bourbon is an American Whiskey, meaning simply that it is distilled in America from a fermented mash of cereal grains. It is the specific blend of these grains, known by bourbon aficionados as a mash bill, that elevate an American Whiskey to a Bourbon Whiskey.

The rules that govern Bourbon whiskeys are quite simple, and (quite surprising to some) have exactly nothing to do with the geography of the great state of Kentucky. Bourbon must be:

1. Primarily Corn (51% is required by law for a whiskey to be termed a Bourbon)

2. Aged in new, charred oak barrels. Ever wonder why Bourbon Barrel Ale cropped up? Those barrels start to pile up after a while… (incidentally, BBA is FANTASTIC if you haven’t sampled it)

3. Distilled to no more than 160 proof.

4. Barreled at no more than 125 proof (a whiskey’s proof will increase during the aging process as water evaporates through the barrel, leaving an ever more concentrated spirit as the years pass).

5. Bottled at no less than 80 proof (again, the math may trip some of you up – typically a bourbon is cut with water to a specifically desired proof during the bottling process. We will discuss exceptions later).


Don’t mistake the lack of geographic limits for a discounting of Kentucky Bourbon: most bourbons are made in Kentucky, and many distillers swear by the limestone-heavy water as a crucial element in crafting a fine spirit.


Now that we have skimmed the rules (I know you’re all here for the recommendations, I’m not delusional!), let’s get to the real stuff – what you should be drinking. It bears mentioning that what follows is an opinion, sprinkled with facts and a substantial amount of personal research.


 image via My American Dream

Past the basics, many subsets (yes, more categories) are used to describe the bourbon you’re considering. Some of these terms are vitally important, while some are pure marketing jargon – it’s important that you know the sheep from the wolves.


Small Batch  –  I list this first as a caution… the term ‘small batch’ is perhaps the greatest of the wolves in bourbon marketing. Small batch bourbons are purportedly crafted in smaller quantities, implying a greater attention to detail and an increased rarity. Unfortunately, no rules exist to govern what a small batch of bourbon is, so in effect anyone who can spell both Small and Batch, organize them on a label and print can charge a few more dollars for their trouble. This is not to say that small batch Bourbons are to be avoided, but you shouldn’t prize this attribute.


Single Barrel  –  Small Batch may be bunk, but this one has real meaning. A bourbon labeled thus is telling you that it is the product of one barrel, meaning that it has not been mingled with multiple barrels prior to its bottling. My favorites in this category include one of my preferred everyday bourbons, Blanton’s (the original single-source bourbon), as well as 10-year-old Eagle Rare.


 Image via Wikipedia

Mashbill Contents (Rye, Corn, Wheat)  –  We know that all bourbons have to be at least 51% Corn. The remaining 49% is typically filled with more Corn, Barley and Rye. The balance of these grains are what distinguish the flavor profiles of the host of bourbons on the market. Bourbons with a high Rye content (Four Roses Single Barrel, Basil Hayden, Bulleit et al.) are typically a bot more bold and spicy (think Rye bread), while those high in Corn will be a tad sweeter, as is the case with Buffalo Trace’s Old Charter. When these grain levels are taken to the extreme, you are left with Rye Whiskey (I love Sazerac and Van Winkle Rye) or Corn Whiskey.


 Image via Spar

Wheated Bourbons  –  There are moments in all things where genius is accompanied by insanity – distilling is no exception. A handful of rebellious distillers choose to add Wheat to their mashbill, and the results can be absolutely phenomenal. Maker’s Mark is the best known amongst the wheated bourbons, but the genius of wheat is found in the Van Winkle varieties (which, ironically, are impossible to find). Revived after prohibition, a third and fourth generation of Van Winkles now distill this magical spirit in ages ranging from 10 to 23 years. These are my absolute favorites amongst bourbons – you will find no fewer than 3 varieties of Van Winkle on my shelf at any given time. Wheated bourbons are exceptionally smooth and a shade softer than your average bourbon.


 Image via Elements Bar Blog

Cask Strength  –  Bourbon is typically distilled at a high proof and then cut to a specific proof when bottled. Cask strength varieties eschew this tradition, offering themselves exactly as they entered the world. These bourbons are exceptionally flavorful, but should be consumed with both water and care – they are extremely powerful. Bourbon lovers will adore the flexibility of these spirits, as they offer the opportunity to cut the whiskey to taste. Always do so – not only will cutting ensure that you do not dial everyone you ever dated, it enhances and unlocks the flavor of your chosen cask-strength. Always ensure that you are cutting with water that matches the bourbon you’re drinking – Louisville’s tap water can win all the awards it wants, but a distilled or spring water will usually be a better choice. Lexington tap water is right out.


These are but a few of the variants you’ll encounter, but to my eyes they’re the ones worth mentioning. In the end, picking the right bourbon has a whole lot to do with how you plan to drink it. I prefer mine neat, you may prefer it on the rocks or in a Manhattan – and we’d love to hear about it! To encourage you, Bluegrass Threads will be giving away a year-long subscription to The Bourbon Review. To enter, simply like us on Facebook and tell us about your favorite Bourbon or Bourbon-based cocktail in the comments below! We will be accepting comments/entries until 9 pm on Sunday, August 12.  I will announce the winner in my next post, where I’ll be telling you what I keep in my personal liquor stash.


-The Kentucky Gentleman


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morning hike: Raven Run Nature Sanctuary

An early morning hike on these hot days is a great way to enjoy nature and get a great cardiovascular workout.

Raven Run Nature Sanctuary has a number of well marked trails in a range of distances for hikers of all abilities.  Head out for some scenic vistas and a range of flora and fauna–the meadow portion has some great birding!

Click HERE to visit the Raven Run page on LexingtonKy.gov

fall leaves

It’s not too late to get a great view and walk off some of those holiday eats.  My pick for a post-Thanksgiving day trip is to the Pinnacles in Berea, Kentucky.  The trail head begins at the Indian Fort Theatre which is also the location of the Berea Craft Festival.  A 6.6 mile loop (which can be broken down into smaller hikes) takes you to several scenic vistas including the East and West Pinnacle, the Buzzard’s Roost, Devil’s Kitchen, Indian Fort Lookout, and the Eagle’s nest.  Click HERE for a trail map.


A view from the Buzzard’s Roost

After your hike, check out the local arts and crafts in downtown Berea and grab a bite at the historic Boone Tavern Hotel.

If you go:

From I-75 south, take Berea exit 76, Hwy 21, go left (east) into Berea. After passing
the small business district and Berea College, come to the intersection where
Hwy 25 splits off left (see Boone Tavern Hotel on left). Continue on Hwy 21 to
the right. From this point drive 3 miles; look for unmarked driveway(s) on the
left side of the road, turn into rather large parking lot. At the head of the
lot, note sign reading ‘Indian Fort Theater.’

mint julep


photo by dthoskins

The following is an excerpt from a letter by Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. to Major General William D. Connor, dated March 30, 1937.  This letter clearly demonstrates the esteem in which a “Mint Julep” is held.

“My Dear General Connor:

Your letter requesting my formula for mixing mint juleps leaves me in the same position in which Captain Barber found himself when asked how he was able to carve the image of an elephant from a block of wood. He said that it was a simple process consisting merely of whittling off the part that didn’t look like an elephant.

The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not a product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the Old South, and emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought.”

Making the perfect mint julep is quintessential for derby day.  After all, it is the derby’s official drink.  Follow these easy steps to the perfect mint julep.

What you’ll need:

4 fresh mint sprigs
2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey
1 tsp powdered sugar
2 tsp water
Step by Step:
Muddle mint leaves, powdered sugar, and water in a collins glass or julep cup. Fill the glass with shaved or crushed ice and add bourbon. Top with more ice and garnish with a mint sprig. Serve with a straw.

Yum!  Let the race begin!