Bourbon is an all-American whiskey — brought to you by the distillers of Bourbon County, Ky. It is so popular that in 1964, Congress declared bourbon America’s Native Spirit.
The barrel-aged distilled spirit is primarily corn liquor; by international law, a whiskey can be labeled bourbon only if it contains at least 51 percent — but no more than 79 percent — corn. The rest of the mixture is wheat, rye and/or malted barley.
In the United States, bourbon labels must carry information of the duration of aging. As they age, bourbons gain a deeper amber color, a slight sweetness and a richer flavor. “Straight” bourbon ages for at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels. Those barrels will never be used to age bourbon again, finding new life as vessels for distilling whiskey or aging soy sauce. One of the more popular oaks for aging bourbon is American white oak.
On the eve of her departure from Chris McD’s Restaurant & Wine Bar, we turned to bartender Laurie Middleton, to get her take on the old-school spirit. “I don’t know much about bourbon other than it takes a certain person,” Middleton says. “Bourbon is a distinctive flavor.”
According to Middleton, bourbon is typically served neat, diluted with water or cola, over ice cubes, mixed with soda, or poured into cocktails. Bitters are often paired with bourbon to add another layer of flavor and enhance certain tasting notes.
Popular bourbon cocktails include the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the whiskey sour or the mint julep. Middleton has developed her own favorites over her six-year tenure at Chris McD’s.
Laurie’s Stand-By Bourbon Cocktails
2 ounces bourbon
2 ounces sweet vermouth
Add bourbon to an ice-filled glass. Top with sweet vermouth and garnish with a cherry.
“A lot of bartenders use less sweet vermouth, but I was taught to use even proportions and I’ve never heard a complaint,” Middleton says.
1 orange slice
1 teaspoon sugar
3 splashes bitters
3 to 4 ounces bourbon
1 splash club soda
Muddle the orange slice, cherry, sugar and bitters. Add ice and then bourbon. Top with club soda.
“People who drink Old Fashioneds know what they’re looking for,” Middleton says, describing the flavors her customers seek out when ordering a drink.
10 mint leaves
1 tablespoon simple syrup
3 ounces bourbon
Muddle mint leaves and syrup together in a glass. Add ice, then bourbon.
“This is a drink you might not think to have often, but it’s nice,” Middleton says. “Most people know it as the drink to have at the Kentucky Derby.”
Pair these foods with your bourbon:
Dunbarton Blue cheese
The Bitter Truth
There are many different kinds of bitters — liquors flavored with distinctive, plant-based tasting notes.
“Bitters are a root that give the drink a whole distinct flavor,” says bartender Laurie Middleton. “They can also have a calming effect, especially on the stomach.”
At Chris McD’s, the bartenders use Angostura bitters, a concentrated concoction of 44.7 percent alcohol, herbs and spices produced by House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago. Check out these other popular and interesting bitters.
Amargo Chuncho: A combination of more than 30 various peels, herbs, roots, barks and flowers from the Peruvian forest.
Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters: Notes of cacoa, cinnamon and spice.
Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters: Cardamom, coffee, chocolate and orange peel.
Dutch’s Colonial Bitters: Bitter, spicy and floral with wild spicebush, kinnikinnick leaf, sandalwood, red rose petals and juniper.
Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters: Grapefruit citrus combined with classic spice flavors of bitters.
Regan’s Orange Bitters: Slight spice and hint of orange zest.
Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters: Lightly floral and slightly spicy.
Sweetgrass Blueberry Bitters: Dried blueberry and heavy Christmas spice.
The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters: Celery, lemongrass, orange peel and ginger.