We have a wealth of opportunities to celebrate bourbon in this country, and for that we can thank Congress. Not only did that esteemed body pronounce the homegrown whiskey “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964, but a 2007 Senate bill declared every September hence to be National Bourbon Heritage Month. This is one time when we can get behind the decisions of our government.
Some boozy history
Of course, whiskey in general isn’t an American product, but the specific type known as bourbon is. There are old-world whiskies, such as Scotch or Irish, and new-world whiskies — bourbon, Canadian, Tennessee, rye, corn, wheat and blended.
We owe a debt of gratitude to a Baptist minister from Kentucky, Elijah Craig, who first made bourbon in 1798. The processes Craig set in motion have evolved into standards that make bourbon a unique distilled spirit.
Whiskey must comply with stiff regulations to qualify as bourbon. It is made from fermented mash of grain — which includes not less than 51 percent corn — that is distilled to no more than 160 proof; entered into and aged in charred, brand-new oak barrels at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof. There can be no colors or flavors added — ever.
Within the strict rules, distillers can coax an array of flavors by creating their own mash bill, or grain recipe. Increasing the corn percentage can give it sweet flavors; adding rye gives it pepper, spice and bite; wheat brings out mellowness; and malted barley adds chocolate with fermented sugars.
The use of sour mash — that thin, watery part of a previously distilled batch of whiskey mash that is added into the next batch, a step Dr. James C. Crow developed in 1823 — also affects the flavor.
The biggest impact on flavor, though, is the barrel. It’s all about the oak. The wood seasoning ("toast" or "char"), along with conditions in the warehouse where the barrel is stored (the "rick house") — including its size, the location of the barrel, and temperature swings and extremes — contributes to the flavor as much as the age, proof, blending and batch.
Many people think that bourbon can be made only in Kentucky; others think it requires water from a pure limestone aquifer in Kentucky. Both conceptions are myths. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States — including Texas.
Accidental birth of a fine Texas spirit
One night in Waco, Chip Tate set out to make a Mediterranean knock-off of bananas Foster. He concocted a treat of figs, honey and sugar, letting them giggle in the delight of a splash of whiskey that would inflame them. The result was so good that Tate decided to distill those figs, honey and sugar into the first Texas-made whiskey: Balcones Rumble.
Tate's Balcones Distillery started selling its whiskey in 2009 and has been making original Texas whiskey with Hopi blue corn ever since. Its lineup is, for the most part, distinctly different from bourbon, having a lot of similarities to Scottish malt. But the ever-tinkering Tate made a small batch of bourbon to satisfy his thirsty fans.
“We made a bourbon that is cask-strength at 64.2 percent alcohol,” Tate says. “We only made a few barrels of bourbon, which equates to 42 bottles for sale in Texas, and only 18 were sent to off-premise [not at a restaurant or bar] for sale. Our bourbon aged a little more than two years in the barrel.”
It tastes of honey, baking spice, toast and pepper, with a tannic tightness on the palate. The spice of the bourbon might make one assume that the mash contains rye, but it’s 100 percent blue corn — an indication of how much impact the barrel and aging conditions can have on the flavor.
Serious Texas distillery
A little farther south, Dan Garrison started his in Hye, Texas, distillery in 2006 and bottled his first batch in 2010. Garrison Brothers makes the first vintage dated bourbon ever produced.
They consider the limestone substrate of the Texas Hill Country to be similar in many ways to the bedrock in Kentucky, producing a similar style of water for bourbon-making. Garrison Brothers follows regulations to the letter and hand-bottles every bit of bourbon that it ages in the Texas heat.
That dedication to craftsmanship means that it is available only in limited supply in Austin stores and sold by the bottle at The W Austin.
Many people contend that the only proper way to drink bourbon is straight up, on ice, or with a splash of water. Purists, please avert your gazes at this time. Bourbon is fantastic in a variety of cocktails. Several fine Austin establishments have generously shared their fantastic recipes for National Bourbon Heritage Month.
Drink.Well., The Cat’s Pajamas
- 2 oz. Four Roses Single Barrel
- .75 oz. Savory & James Cream Sherry
- .5 oz. Cynar
- 2 dashes Barkeep Chinese Five Spice Bitters
- Apple slices
Add all ingredients together and stir. Pour into a chilled Leopold's coupe and garnish with fanned apple slices.
Contigo, The Dancing Outlaw
- 1.5 oz. Bulliet bourbon
- 5 oz. Domain de Canton Ginger liqueur
- .75 oz. lemon verbena syrup
- .75 ounce lemon juice
- 3 dashes of Bad Dog Fire and Damnation bitters
Shaken, strained over cracked ice, then garnished with a lemon zest and a lemon verbena leaf.
Put lemon verbena syrup in a saucepan. Add 1 quart water, 1.5 quarts brown sugar, stir and bring to a boil. Then add 3 bunches (handfuls) of lemon verbena leaves. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, allow to cool, bottle and store up to two weeks.
Lucy’s Fried Chicken, Texas Whiskey Revival
- .75 oz. Balcones True Blue Whiskey
- .75 oz. St. Germain
- 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1 bar spoon simple syrup (1:1 ratio hot water and sugar)
In a rocks glass, add all the ingredients plus ice. Shake and pour back into glass. Garnish with your favorite cherry and citrus combination. Our favorite is garnished with candied orange peel and bourbon cherries when they are in season.
Jack Allen’s Kitchen, TX Whiskey Shandy
- 1.5 oz. TX Blended Whiskey (Fort Worth)
- 2 muddled lemon wedges
- 1 oz. Round Rock honey-fig syrup
- 3 oz. of Original Sin Hard Cider
Muddle lemon slices and honey-fig syrup in Collins glass. To avoid bitterness, be sure not to overmuddle. Add scoop of ice and whiskey. Top with hard cider (or fill to top). Roll in and out of shaker tin back into glass until fruit is not on bottom.
Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Eagle Rare Manhattan
- 2 oz. Eagle Rare 10-Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (JAK's hand-selected barrel)
- 1 oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters
- Luxardo maraschino cherry
Place maraschino cherry in bottom of chilled 10 oz. martini glass. In a shaker with ice, stir whiskey, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters 10 times with bar spoon. Strain into glass over cherry.