June 14 is National Bourbon Day here in the United States, and I’m glad that Bourbon has a day because it is a spirit that is native to the USA. Pour yourself a glass (or a splash in your coffee since the current time is 6:47 a.m. as I am writing this) and read a little bit about bourbon on this most sacred of holidays.
I love bourbon. Bourbon is my favorite type of alcohol. You can, of course, drink it neat, on the rocks, straight up, mixed with something, or even flavored with things like smoke or fruit. You can also cook with bourbon, but why bother unless you’re making some bread pudding in the Deep South?
But probably my favorite characteristic of bourbon is how unapologetically American it is. It’s called bourbon because it originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, though it was normally just referred to as “American whiskey” until the mid-1800s.
The true origins of bourbon are unknown. In the 1700s, Kentucky was made up mostly of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, though there were also many Welsh, English, and German settlers as well. Tradition states that Baptist minister Elijah Craig invented bourbon, though most modern historians believe this theory to be more legend that truth. But historians do know that bourbon is distinctly American in that the technologies already known by the Scots and Irish were combined with American ingredients to create a new spin on an Old World classic.
Bourbon became the drink of the American frontier and increased in popularity in the nineteenth century. With the enactment of Prohibition in the early twentieth century, bourbon became less available as people generally drank “bathtub gin,” a catchall term for homemade alcohol. Bourbon hasn’t really recovered from Prohibition, however. Beer, wine, and vodka dominate the American alcohol scene, and while plenty of people drink bourbon, really the true bourbon enthusiast is rare.
So what makes bourbon bourbon? According to laws and regulations, in order for a spirit to be called bourbon it must:
- Be produced in the United States or a territory of the United States;
- Be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn;
- Be aged in new charred oak barrels;
- Enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume); and
- Be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV);
When the bourbon is barreled to age, water will evaporate over time and increase the proportion of alcohol in the liquid. This means that, generally speaking, bourbons which are aged longer will have a higher alcohol content. And while there is technically no minimum duration for its aging process, for a bourbon to be called “straight bourbon,” it must be aged at least two years, and “bottled-in-bond” bourbon must be aged at least four years. However, bourbons with as little as three months’ aging are regularly sold.
Of course, the best part of bourbon is drinking it. We generally keep two bourbons on hand at our house at any given time. Typically I will have a large bottle of Four Roses bourbon and a smaller bottle of something a bit fancier such as a single-barrel or a bonded bourbon. My favorite way to enjoy bourbon is over ice in a lowball glass, but I love a good Manhattan and I also appreciate a good mint julep come Kentucky Derby time.
And what kind of person would I be if I didn’t leave you with a recipe for my all-time favorite bourbon cocktail, the Perfect Manhattan. I know a Manhattan was traditionally made with rye, but it’s better with bourbon. What separates a Perfect Manhattan with a regular Manhattan? The proportions of vermouth. A standard Manhattan is made with sweet vermouth, but a Perfect Manhattan is made with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, which helps bring down the overall sweetness of the drink. Here’s the recipe:
- 2 shots of good bourbon;
- 1/2 shot of sweet vermouth;
- 1/2 shot of dry vermouth;
- Dash of Angostura bitters; and
- 1 maraschino cherry.
In a large glass, mix the bourbon, vermouth, and bitters and add ice. Stir gently with a stirrer to allow the liquids to mix and cool down, but more than 30 seconds to avoid watering down your drink. In the meantime, get a chilled cocktail glass or lowball glass and add the cherry to that glass. Strain the cocktail out of your mixing glass and into your drinking glass. Manhattans are generally served chilled but neat.
Some notes on the drink: I don’t like cocktail glasses, so I generally drink mine out of a lowball glass like the one pictured. If I don’t have time to chill the glass in the freezer, I will fill the glass with ice and let it sit for about 3 or 4 minutes before taking that ice and putting it in the mixing glass to cool the liquids before pouring the finished drink back in the drinking glass. Also, if you don’t have or don’t like Angostura bitters, orange bitters will do, but be very careful when adding them because the flavor can be overpowering. If it has been an exceptionally long day, I will double the recipe and serve it in a lowball glass on the rocks, which breaks with tradition but helps the drink go down smoother over time.
I want to stress that the cherry garnish is actually important in this drink. Like the olive in a martini or the onion in a gibson, the cherry in a Manhattan helps impact just a whisper of fruity sweetness to compliment the bitterness of the bitters and the bite of the alcohol. Maraschino cherries are cheap and will keep in the fridge for a long time, so just splurge for the $1.99 jar of them at your local supermarket.
And now for some final thoughts on vermouth. It took me many years to come to grips with the fact that vermouth matters. In many ways vermouth matters more than the main spirit in a cocktail because different vermouths affect how you process the liquor in different ways. This is especially true when making a drink that uses a strong alcohol flavor like bourbon and even more especially true when you make a cocktail with both sweet and dry vermouth. For a Manhattan, the best sweet vermouth is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. The best dry vermouth for a Manhattan is Dolin Dry Vermouth. Dolin is dry enough to bring down the sweetness, but unassertive enough to allow the bourbon to be the star of the show.
So there you have it. The Perfect Manhattan consists of bourbon from America, bitters from Trinidad and Tobago, sweet vermouth from Italy, dry vermouth from France, and maraschino cherries, which originated in present-day Croatia. It’s also named after a borough renowned for its diversity, which seems fitting for what is a quintessentially American cocktail made with a quintessentially American spirit.