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How to Understand Bourbon and Make Bourbon Cocktails

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Back when I was a teenager, I discovered that I liked to try different drinks.  One that a lot of people talked about with hushed voices was Jack Daniels – strong stuff, they said.  I tried it and liked it. 

Since then I have learned that Jack Daniels isn’t just a whiskey but a bourbon (well, sort of – more on that in a moment).  But I must admit to never quite understanding when a whiskey is a bourbon and how to understand bourbon as a type of whiskey on its own. 

So I decided to do some learning (and find a few bourbon cocktails too) – here’s what I found.

Bourbon or whiskey?

To first understand bourbon, you have to understand a little about whiskey.  Whiskey is made from a blend of fermented grains – these can include corn, barley, rye and wheat.  This is called a mash bill.  The ratio of the grains makes up the mash bill and also dictates whether the drink it makes is a whiskey or a bourbon. 

According to Southern Living,

‘All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon’

Why?  Because for a drink to be called bourbon it has to have a mash bill that is at least 51% corn.  What the remainder of the mash bill is what helps define the taste. 

So there’s wheated bourbon which tends to be mellower and softer.  Then there’s rye bourbon which has a spicier flavour.  The mash has to be distilled at 160 proof or less and put into the barrel at 125 proof or less.

Barrels also play a big part in what makes bourbon different to whiskey

Then there’s the barrel ageing process.  Bourbon has to be aged in charred white oak barrels and they have to be new ones.  And finally, it has to be made in the USA to be a bourbon.  Kentucky is the home of many of the most famous bourbons because there is an area known as Old Bourbon (now Bourbon County) that is the home of the drink.

Tennessee Whiskey

I mentioned before that my first real encounter with bourbon was Jack Daniels.  But to be totally accurate, Jack isn’t a bourbon – it’s a Tennessee whiskey.  That’s because they use something called the Lincoln County Process to make Jack Daniels and other similar whiskeys.  The process is a little different from other bourbons and that’s why they have their very own category.

Choosing a bourbon

So while there are those rules about the minimum amount of corn in the mash bill to make a bourbon, there are still more variations.  Understanding a little about them helps you understand the bourbon and what the taste will be like as well as what good bourbon drinks they will make.

On they break down bourbons into three types:

  • Traditional – has around 70% corn and roughly even amounts of rye and barley. Famous examples include Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams
  • High rye – have more rye than barley and have a spicier taste. Famous examples include Four Roses and Buffalo Trace
  • Traditional wheat – have a sweeter and softer taste using corn, barley and wheat. Famous examples include Marker’s Mark and Van Winkle

7 of the best bourbon cocktails

Now you might know I am a cocktail fan – I love nothing more than finding the best cocktails for any drink.  Having now got a slightly better understanding of bourbon, the next logical step was to find the best bourbon cocktails. 

Here’s some of the ones I found that I quite fancy trying (although not all on the same night!!)

1.       Old Fashioned

If you were to Google ‘simple bourbon cocktails’ the first one to come up nearly every time is the Old Fashioned.  And it earns its name – it dates back to the early 1800s and the basic recipe hasn’t changed much since then. 

All you need is a sugar cube in a tumbler and add a few dashes of Angostura BittersMuddle it around (squash it and mix about) then add some ice.  Add 60-80ml of your favourite bourbon and stir.  Garnish with an orange wedge and maraschino cherry.

2.      The Brooklyn

This is like a cousin to The Manhattan, another famous cocktail.  The classic recipe calls for something called Amer Picon, a French aperitif that is orange flavoured. 

You need a shaker filled with ice then add 60ml bourbon, 20ml dry vermouth (dry Martini), 10ml Amer Picon and 10ml maraschino (cherry) liqueur.  Stir until cold then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Now I didn’t know Amer Picon well but it sounded a little like Triple Sec to me.  A quick bit of research led me to a variation called the Brooklyn Eagle.  This uses 2 ounce bourbon, 1 ounce Triple Sec, ½ ounce sweet vermouth (red Martini) and 1 ounce lime juice.  So if you have triple sec in your cupboard and don’t want to invest in Amer Picon, there’s a variation for you.

3.       The Basin Street

Quite a few of the bourbon mixed drinks come from Prohibition era when the whole point of cocktails was to hide the alcohol.  The Basin Street is one of these and is ideal for those warm summer nights. 

Add 60ml bourbon to a shaker filled with ice then add 30ml triple sec and the same lemon juice.  Shake until chilled and strain into a cocktail glass.

4.      The Seelbach

Another one with history, The Seelbach was originally created in 1918 in the Seelbach Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky.  But it wasn’t rediscovered until 1995 when a manager of the hotel found the recipe. 

It needs a champagne coupe glass to be traditional and you add 30ml bourbon, 15ml Cointreau, 4 dashes Peychaud bitters and 3 dashes of Angostura bitters.  Top it with either chilled champagne or sparkling wine and a twist of orange peel.

5.      Brown Derby

The Brown Derby is another that comes under the simple bourbon cocktails category and only needs three ingredients.  It was named for the hat, apparently, and has a nice balance of sweet and sour ingredients. 

You need 45ml bourbon, 30ml fresh grapefruit juice and 15ml honey.  Add to a shaker with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass then garnish with a grapefruit wedge.

6.      Mint Julep

The Mint Julep is the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby and was originally made back in the 18th century. 

Grab a highball glass or a silver Julep cup for this one.  Take 7.5ml raw sugar syrup, 8 mint leaves and 60ml bourbon.  Muddle the mint and syrup in the glass then add the bourbon and lots of ice.  Stir and garnish with a mint sprig.

bourbon cocktails - the mint julep
By Cocktailmarler [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

7.       Bourbon Lift

Personally, I’m not a massive fan of cocktails with cream in them.  But if you are, then this one might be worth adding to your list. 

You need 45ml bourbon (the recipe recommend Marker’s Mark) along with 15ml heavy cream, 15ml coffee liqueur and 15ml almond orgeat.  Add to a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a Collins glass.  Fill with club soda to about 6 inches from the top.  Wait a moment then add some more which will ‘lift’ the foam to the top and create the classic look.  And serve with a straw to avoid getting it all over your face!

A new favourite?

I feel like I understand bourbon and whiskey a little better after reading up on all of this and hopefully, you do too.  There’s also a few of these cocktails I’ll be trying when I get a few ingredients into the cupboard.

Are you already a bourbon fan and have a favourite?  Or would one of these cocktails really be your thing?  Tell me in the comments below!

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