The article is the online exclusive Beverage & Spirits column for the November/December issue of Chef Magazine.
Whether it's rounding out an Old Fashioned, presented simply in a tumbler with a few ice cubes, or adding a kick to a pork rib glaze, bourbon is a distinctly American spirit finding its way onto more bar and restaurant menus nationwide. Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, mixologist at restaurant and whiskey bar Char No. 4 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a columnist for the food section of The Faster Times, can make a bourbon lover out of just about any stubborn scotch or whiskey drinker. It all starts with distinguishing what makes bourbon bourbon, he says.
"If we talk specifically about bourbon, what's going to make it different is the one crop that we tend to grow a lot of in the United States, and that's corn. Bourbon is going to have that natural corn sweetness to it that you’re not going to get from a scotch or even a rye whiskey." The other thing that makes bourbon special, Gold says, is that unlike vodka or scotch, it's heavily regulated by the U.S. federal government, meaning it can only be made from grain, water and yeast, and it has to contain between 51 and 79 percent corn. Additionally, bourbon has to be aged in brand-new charred oak barrels; to be considered straight bourbon, it must be aged a minimum of two years.
As long as they're complying with the veritable laundry list of government requirements, distillers can play with the percentages of wheat, rye or barley on the bourbon's mash bill, which means the makeup of grains in the mash. They seldom share this information, though, so this is where Gold likes to fill in the blanks by comparing bourbon's different flavor profiles to bread. "[The mash bill] is not freely given out by distillers because it's like their trade secrets," he says. "But if the bourbon has more of a spicy note to it, then you can tell it's probably made with a little bit more rye. And if it has kind of a drier note to it--that classic barley flavor--then you can tell it's made with a bit more barley. If you compare wheat to rye, it's a lot rounder, smoother, maybe a little sweeter. Maker's Mark, for example, is a six-year-old wheated bourbon that's very smooth and sweet and easy to drink."
Gold says that age is where the complexity and aroma in bourbon begin to really develop. "Once you get up around nine or 10 years with a wheated bourbon, for example, the wheat kind of matures and takes over, and the corn peters out a little bit. And you get this really amazing, incomparable flavor with an older wheated bourbon ... like the Pappy Van Winkle line [from Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.], which are 12-, 15-, 20- and 23-year-old bourbons."
When it comes to classic bourbon cocktails like the Manhattan or the New Orleans Sazerac (recipe follows), recipes typically call for rye bourbon, though Gold says it's ultimately up to the bartender. "Like everything food-related, it's highly subjective. I'm a huge fan of Rittenhouse Rye or Rittenhouse Bonded 100 proof. It's wonderful to drink on its own but makes a fabulous Manhattan. I wouldn't use 107-proof, really nice aged whiskey in certain cocktails because then you're not going to really experience the spirit as much as you would just drinking it. You can if you like; people make cocktails with 151-proof rum after all."
The secret's in the ice
While many scotch drinkers will claim ice interferes with whiskey's flavor, one of the lesser-known secrets to a great bourbon cocktail is, in fact, the ice. Gold says all foodservice operations and bars should use a water filtration system if they plan to offer an extensive liquor list.
"Who wants to drink a $20 glass of whiskey with dirty, chlorinated ice? It just ruins everything," he says. "One of the reasons that people started making bourbon in Kentucky is because they have these huge limestone deposits, and limestone acts as a natural filter for water, so it is really hard. That's the same hard, clean water that's going into making the whiskey.
"And if it's 100 proof or more, or even a regular 90-proof bourbon, I'll add one or two ice cubes. Not as much to cool the temperature down, but to help the spirit open up and to bring out the aromatics."
Ice also plays a significant part in helping the bourbon novice learn more about the spirit. "I tell people when they're first learning about whiskey to take a sip of it before they put the ice in--to get a sense of it--and then once they put an ice cube in, swirl it around and give it about 60 seconds; it's going to taste almost like a different whiskey." Gold frequently comes across newcomers to whiskey at Char No. 4, where the menu of more than 150 American whiskeys can be quite intimidating. As patrons gaze incredulously at the menu, unsure of what to order, the first words out of their mouths are typically apologies. "The customers always apologize for not knowing enough. And there's nothing to apologize about, you know? You're here; you're looking to learn. That's a wonderful thing."
Gold coaches them by first finding out which, if any, whiskeys they already like. "The first question I always ask is, 'Is there any whiskey you've had that you've enjoyed?'" If someone tells me they like Knob Creek Bourbon that immediately signals the fact that they like something that's nine years old with a higher proof. Or if they say, 'I really love Basel Hayden,' then I think, that's 80 proof, lighter, single barrel, softer on the palate, which takes me in that direction."
For the scotch drinkers who are open to American whiskey, Gold steers them right toward rye, which he says makes a perfect bridge between scotch and bourbon since it's not as sweet as a wheated bourbons, for example.
What to eat?
So what does one pair with this versatile, aromatic spirit? Good old-fashioned Southern cuisine, of course, Gold replies. From smoked, barbecue or slow-cooked beef and pork to rich potato dishes, American comfort food pairs well with America's spirit, mainly because it's regional, Gold says. "Regionally, these things pair well together because the same people making barbecue or cooking in cast iron or deep frying were drinking whiskey while they made it!"
He adds that bourbon unsurprisingly pops up as an ingredient in barbecue sauces or glazes for ribs. In addition, certain American whiskeys, especially the sharper ones, make wonderful digestifs. "So if you have a really hot bourbon--maybe a cask-strength or barrel-proof--with an ice cube to let it open up and take some of the sting out, it is great for cutting through the richness of that meal, if you're feeling loaded down," Gold says.
Gold shared his recipe for the Sazerac, a classic New Orleans cocktail made up of bourbon, simple syrup and two types of bitters. According to Gold, the perfect Sazerac has no garnish, no ice and should come out "this really lovely kind of pinkish-red color. I learned it in bartending school in New Orleans back when I was in college, and this is the Sazerac that I still make when I'm behind the bar today," he says. "It's a beautiful, beautiful thing."
Scott Gold, mixologist, Char No. 4, New York City
Scott Gold, mixologist, Char No. 4, New York City
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 oz. absinthe or herbsaint liqueur (use Pernod if can't get either)
1 large lemon peel, rough cut
2 oz. rye whiskey (recommended: Old Overholt Canadian Rye Whiskey)
1/2 to 3/4 oz. simple syrup, 1-to-1 sugar to water
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Method (1) Fill a rocks glass or Old Fashioned glass with ice and water to chill. Dump out the ice, and pour in a little absinthe. Turn the glass a few times to line the inside with the absinthe; dump it again. (2) Wipe the rim of the glass with the lemon peel. (3) Add measured whiskey, simple syrup and bitters to a stainless steel shaker, and stir; don't shake. (4) Strain the cocktail straight up into the chilled glass, and enjoy immediately.