Pleasure / March 2017

The Beauty of Bourbon

With bourbon sales on the rise, The Rake felt that it was high time for a thorough reappraisal of one of America’s best inventions: the dark stuff.

A Woodford Reserve worker samples one of their barrels, ready for bottling. (Images courtesy of Woodford Reserve).

Tell someone at Heaven's Hill, Four Roses, Blueits or Pappy Van Winkle that their product is a little rough and ready - the drink of cowboys and prohibition dodgers, the tipple brewed in the back woods by hillbillies - and they rightly recoil. They might tell you how the likes of Wild Turkey Russell Reserve is aged for ten years; or how Maker’s Mark is made in batches of less than 19 barrels at a time and is based on a recipe that dates back to 1780; or how Baker’s, another bourbon brand, requires the use of a special yeast. This is the esoteric talk more typically reserved for Scotch whiskey, not the kind from Kentucky.

But to say that bourbon has undergone a renaissance is a bit like pointing out that a lot of champagne gets drunk at weddings. Indeed, much as champagne has its Appelation Controlee, to monitor provenance and quality, so bourbon is defined by an Act of Congress - it must be at least 51% corn, less than 160 proof and aged in charred white oak barrels, which are then sold to makers of the other stuff in Scotland.

Recent years has seen it become the only spirit category to see sales increase, and in a remarkable way. In the UK sales of bourbons increased 14% last year. Jim Beam, the world's biggest bourbon maker, saw its sales increase 60%. And bourbon is tipped to be the fastest growing spirit over the next five years too. This is, in part, down to a proliferation of smoother, small batch bourbons, and to a more connoisseur appreciation that wouldn't dream of mixing a bourbon with a cola, as has long been the standard means of consumption. This, after all, was Frank Sinatra's drink of choice, adulterated by no more than maybe a little ice and lots of attitude.

If Scotch whiskey has long struggled to overcome its reputation as being an old man's drink, that at least has never been bourbon's problem. But the same kind of buffery abounds. A bourbonista will tell you how, for example, Kentucky bourbon - generally considered the real mccoy, and the home of most bourbon, if only because the local limestone-rich water helps keep iron content to a minimum - must be aged for a minimum of two years; how the likes of Jack Daniels, the oldest and most famous of branded bourbons, is technically a Tennessee whiskey, just one of two in existence. If pontificating on scotch's finer points is its appeal, bourbon won't leave you disappointed.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.