Bottoms Up: bourbon

White mule, white lightning, tanglefoot and skull buster – these are just a few of the sweet nicknames my firewater carries. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, today’s “Bottoms Up” takes an in-depth look at the king of liquors: Kentucky bourbon whiskey. This fine liquid is aged in charred oak barrels, is distilled from at least 51 percent corn, contains zeropercent added coloring or flavor and is produced uniquely in the U.S. of A. In fact, our nation is so proud of this fine product that we have been celebrating September as “National Bourbon Heritage Month” since 2007.

Oak, lighter layers of chestnut and a hint of spice from the Blue Hills themselves play across my palate as I sip delicately (yet in a masculine manner) from my Maker’s Mark on the rocks. This fine product is a “straight bourbon” (meaning it has aged for at least two years) bottled in Loretto, Ky. This kind of quality will come at a premium, but the reward is a taste as pure as American freedom. Maker’s Mark is a whiskey for the true-blue bourbon drinker, those steadfast individuals not willing to compromise on taste. In short: for those drinkers not on a college budget.

According to legend, the pioneering Baptist minister Elijah Craig is credited with aging whiskey mash in charred oak barrels for the first time, and thus the invention of bourbon. The first person to label his spirit bourbon, however, was Jacob Spears, resident of Clay-Kaiser Road, Bourbon County. Distilling came to the region most likely as Scottish and Irish settlers moved into the massive Bourbon County. Today, however, no distilleries operate in Bourbon County, as the area has been cut up into many smaller counties over the years. That said, estimates still hold that over 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky.

If you are trying to celebrate Bourbon Heritage Month on more of a budget, you might consider Austin Nichols’ Wild Turkey. This whiskey may be a little lighter on flavor than Maker’s but makes up for it with a little extra burn going down the ole pipe. Turkey enters the arena at a girthy 101 proof compared to the more refined 90 proof of Maker’s classic beverage. Forced to describe Turkey’s unique yet affordable taste, I would liken it to taking a caramel sundae, separating out the very sweetest parts, then adding a healthy dose of bonfire wood smoke to balance it out.

Before we visit the last item on our list, perhaps some of you liquor lovers out there would like to know what goes into making a good whiskey. Typically the mash bill is around two thirds corn and one third wheat, rye and malted barley. This mix is ground and mixed into water. Today, all bourbons are made using the “sour-mash” method. This means that liquid from previous distillations is added to ensure that this mix will have similar characteristics (most importantly pH) to previous batches. Next, brewers add yeast and begin fermenting the whole mixture. The spirit that results is about 70 percent alcohol. This liquid is poured into charred oak barrels where it gains color and flavor from the wood as it ages. Unlike many other alcohols, maturity, not a particular age, is the goal of the Bourbon process.

Take some toast, burn it to a crisp. Next add water, some molasses and just one teaspoon eye of newt, and you will have yourself the final item on our list: the one, the only Jim Beam. This delicious and nutritious liquid has a budget price yet also lays claim to a host of legendary performances. In this writer’s brief research, it was uncovered that one student drank Beam to the point where he/she was able to fly over a bar wall to land into blissful Herringdom. In another legend of the College, a student was able to walk over a bed of 600 lit butane lighters without harm following a healthy dose of Beam.

Finally, no “Bottoms Up” would be complete without praise for the many kinds of drinks in which bourbon can play a role. A “Creole Lady,” for those of you more Southern-inclined drinkers, is made with one part bourbon, one part Madeira and one teaspoon grenadine. A variation on this theme, the “Red Raider” is two parts bourbon, one part triple sec, two parts lemon juice and a dash of grenadine. Getting ready for First Fridays? Strap on a pair of “Stilettos,” a squeezed half lemon, one part bourbon and one and a half teaspoons Amaretto that is, and you’ll be ready to dance the night away.

Bourbon was the drink of pioneers throughout the first two centuries of this nation’s birth. Tonight, tomorrow night and throughout all September nights, let your whiskey flow as we as a nation appreciate National Bourbon Heritage Month.

Prices for bourbon: Maker’s Mark (750 mL), $32.50; Wild Turkey (750 mL), $26.49; Jim Beam (750 mL), $20.50
from West’s Wine & Spirits