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Behind the Bar: All About Bourbon

Learn about the history of bourbon, plus how to purchase and enjoy the classic American spirit.

Whether you’re betting on the race or begging your girlfriend not to wear a floppy hat to your favorite watering hole, don’t let the Kentucky Derby slip by without enjoying a drink that screams all things southern. We’re talking about bourbon, and in case you’re clueless about the classic American spirit, we’re here to walk you through the basics.

The Kentucky-Bourbon Connection

Bourbon is a spirit distilled from corn, and thanks to Kentucky’s landlocked geography, the state has a reputation for making it best. “Kentucky has lots of freshwater sources, including springs and streams, and all of the water is iron- and limestone-free, which positively affects the taste of the spirit,” says Michael Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage and Associate Curator at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, KY.

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Buying a Good Bottle of Bourbon

Several factors differentiate one bourbon from another. First, there’s the grain recipe—the proportions of corn, barley, rye, and wheat that go into making the spirit. Next, bourbon makers consider the water source (deep well, spring or reverse osmosis). Finally, the fermentation period and the yeast used during the aging process contribute to the flavor of a particular batch of bourbon.

So, how do you know which bottle of bourbon to buy when you’re standing in the liquor store? Veach suggests doing some research ahead of time to see which varieties will appeal to you based on what you typically enjoy in a drink. “Generally speaking, a heavier bodied bourbon is darker in color, and lighter tasting one is lighter in color,” he says. “And a lighter bourbon is usually younger, while a heavier, darker one is older.”

Classic Bourbon-Based Cocktails

The mint julep—bourbon, sugar, mint, and crushed ice—is among the most popular cocktails you can make with bourbon. It’s also become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. “The light and fresh taste became associated with spring, so it only seemed natural to enjoy it at the Derby,” says Veach. The Old Fashioned, made with bourbon, water, sugar, bitters, and sometimes fruit, is also a popular drink. And we can’t forget about the Manhattan—bourbon, mixed with sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters.

Recipes:

Enjoying bourbon straight up or neat is all about trying the spirit and finding out what suits you, says Veach. “My only suggestion is that if the Bourbon is 110 proof or higher, you’re killing your taste buds at that point, so add water or an ice cube to enjoy the flavor a little longer.”

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