National Bourbon Heritage Month - Classic Bourbon & Modern Cocktails

In August of 2007 the United States Senate declared that September be recognized as National Bourbon Heritage Month. While this may not have much impact with the average consumer, it is an honor for the craftsmen in the bourbon industry. The designation is designed to celebrate "America's Native Spirit" and the significant historical, economical and industrial role the bourbon industry has played in the country's history.

Bourbon is undeniably on a major roll. Over the last few years, sales of the whiskey have shot up around the world. While I love that bars and stores now boast big selections of the spirit, we still hear plenty of misinformation about the liquor. So to set the record straight, I have debunked some of the most common bourbon myths. But first, let’s explain “bourbon”.

The term “bourbon” applies to any whiskey made from at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged in charred new-oak barrels for at least two years to be labeled “straight bourbon”, and a strict prohibition against any additives except water. Bourbon typically has a rich, sweet taste, and full mouthfeel.  With some high quality bourbons, you will receive a ‘burn’ in the mouth or throat. Almost all bourbon is blended from many casks, though there are a few single-barrel and small-batch blends, and its age designation refers to the youngest bourbon in the blend.


Recommended Bottles

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon – Many bourbons are too pricey to mix into drinks, but perfect for sipping. Buffalo Trace is a great bourbon for both because of its affordability, buttery-corn flavor, and distinct nuttiness similar to pecans.

Elijah Craig 12-Yr Kentucky Straight Bourbon – This bourbon’s caramel and honey forward flavors makes it a great candidate for sour-style cocktails, such as Whiskey Sour, but also goes well in a Manhattan or Old-Fashioned.

Old Grand-Dad 114 Kentucky Straight Bourbon – It’s spicy kick makes Old Grand-Dad a rye-lover’s bourbon, and at 57% ABV (114 proof), it gives juleps, old-fashioneds, and other whiskey drinks served over ice the benefit of full body without the unpleasantness of over-proof booze hitting you in the face.


Myths -

Jack Daniels is a bourbon.

An easy bet to win is to ask them to find the word “bourbon” on a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. You’ll stump them every time, since the spirit is a Tennessee whiskey, not a bourbon. What’s the difference? Jack Daniel’s goes through a special charcoal-filtering process before it’s put into barrels and is basically a sour mash (leftover bourbon), like sourdough bread.

All bourbon is made in Kentucky.

While most bourbon comes from the Bluegrass State (according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, 95 percent of the planet’s supply is born there), by law the alcohol can be distilled anywhere in the United States and only in the United States. Unique bourbons exist from across the country, like those from Upstate New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits and Chicago’s Few Spirits.

Older bourbon is better.

Super-premium and super-old bourbons such as Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Years Old and Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old are beloved by bartenders and drinkers and they are really the exception and not the norm. Older bourbon isn’t necessarily better -  If the spirit spends too long in a barrel, all you’ll taste is wood.

You can’t add ice & mixers.

Don’t let anybody tell you how to drink your whiskey. You should enjoy it any way you want. And in fact, a bit of water helps open up the bourbon just as it does with Scotch. If you want to add ice, use a jumbo cube that chills thoroughly but melts slowly. Bourbon is also, of course, delicious in cocktails. It's particularly good in a simple and refreshing Presbyterian and the classic Mint Julep or Manhattan along with many other specialty cocktails you can have today.


Classic Manhattan

“I’ll have a Manhattan” crosses the bar almost more than other off-menu drink order. Whiskey tempered and sweetened by vermouth and reinforced with bitters is one of the most riff-friendly cocktail templates. Long before modern bartenders began splicing and dicing classic recipes, the Manhattan was father to many spin-offs. Some of them, like the Rob Roy, are classics in their own right. The classic usually calls for a blended or rye whiskey, but I prefer it with a really good bourbon.

  • 2 ½ oz Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon, Elijah Craig 12-yr old Straight Bourbon, or high quality bourbon, such as Bulleit
  • ½ - ¾ oz (I recommend ¾ for balance, but some people prefer more dry) quality Sweet Vermouth, such Carpano Antica or Dolin Rouge
  • 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
  • Garnish a cherry

Prep - Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Add ingredients. Stir gently for about 20 seconds each direction. Strain using a julep strainer (strainer with holes) into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a cherry (brandied cherries preferred) or lemon twist, if cherries not available..

For a classic "Dry Manhattan", substitute sweet vermouth for dry vermouth. For a "Perfect Manhattan" split the vermouths by using ¼ oz of sweet vermouth and ¼ of dry vermouth.


Classic Old-Fashioned

An old-fashioned is another simple recipe on the surface, but has been butchered by bartenders and bars for years. It calls for whiskey (rye in this case, but again, I prefer bourbon), a small proportion of sugar, bitters, and citrus. In an old-fashioned, balance manifests itself by enhancing the base spirit by rounding off the edges. If you add too much sweetener, the drink tastes bland. Skip or forget the bitters and it’s just too sweet. An old-fashioned without citrus lacks the bright aroma that will lighten the drink’s booziness. Forget the soda water – ruins the authenticity of the drink.

  • 1 teaspoon Demerara Syrup (2 cups sugar to 1 cup water over medium heat almost to a boil until sugar is dissolved)
  • slice of orange and a cherry
  • 2 oz Eagle Rare 10-yr old Bourbon
  • 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash of an Aromatic Bitter, such Orange Bitters or Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Garnish an orange and lemon twist or peel

Prep – Stir all ingredients over one scoop of ice in a mixing glass, then strain using a julep strainer into a double rocks glass over 1 large ice cube. If you don’t have access to large ice cubes, then use 2 sizable ice cubes. Garnish with an orange and lemon twist or peel.


Contemporary Cocktails


Basil Julep

This a very aromatic version on the classic Mint Julep.

  • 2 oz Bulleit Bourbon
  • ½ oz fresh lemon juice
  • ½ oz simple syrup (1:1)
  • 3 basil leaves

Prep - Muddle basil, lemon juice, and simple syrup in the bottom of a rocks glass. Add cracked ice. Add bourbon. Stir well. Garnish basil leaf.


Gold Rush

This is a great after-dinner drink. I served many of these back in the day at my cocktail lounge.

  • 2 oz Elijah Craig 12-yr old Bourbon
  • ½ oz Barenjager Honey Liqueur or other honey liqueur
  • ½ oz fresh lemon juice
  • ½ oz honey syrup

Prep - Build all ingredients in an ice-filled rocks glass. Stir well. Garnish lemon peel.

For "Orange Rush", add a splash of orange juice.


Bourbon Blackberry Collins

This is a very popular signature cocktail served at many Raise Your Spirits events.

  • 2 blackberries (1 for garnish)
  • 1 oz Bird Dog Bourbon Whiskey
  • ½ oz Cointreau Orange Liqueur
  • ½ oz Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur
  • 1 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup (1:1)
  • Soda water

Prep – Lightly mash/bruise one blackberry in the bottom of a tin or mixing glass. Add all other ingredients. Add ice. Shake and strain or fine strain (if you don’t want blackberry particles) into an ice-filled collins glass. Top with soda water. Drop in one blackberry and lemon peel.


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