Bourbon is the dirty burger to Scotch's steak. Kentucky's finest export, bourbon is a completely myth-laden spirit and part of two of the oldest cocktails we know about: the Mint Julep and the Old Fashioned.
Bourbon starts life like just about every spirit: some sort of carbohydrates are fermented, then the resulting 'beer' is distilled. With bourbon, we start with a mix of corn, wheat and rye – wheatier bourbons tend to be sweeter (like Makers Mark), and rye heavy bourbons like Four Roses or Bulleit tend to be a bit more spicy. The grains are ground up, added to water, and, usually, a bit of the last fermentation batch is added (the sour mash you sometimes see on the label). That's left to bubble and ferment, then the resulting distiller's beer, or wash, is run through a still a couple of times. The resulting ambrosia is called 'New Make', 'White Dog' or, more usually, moonshine (you've heard of it in movies) and is usually distilled to around 70% ABV. It smells of delicious popcorn, and it tastes of, uh, delicious nail polish remover and burning tyres and fruit that's on the turn. So, y'know, not for everyone.
That goes into a charred American oak barrel and gets left in a Kentucky warehouse for a few years and magic happens. Well, complicated organic chemistry, at least.
Now you know what it is, go out and grab a bottle. And while you're at it, get some Angostura bitters (the funny little bottle with a yellow lid that's been gathering dust on the shelf of your local for years). If you like your bourbon sweeter, or you're not sure about whether it's for you (it is, by the way, it totally is), grab a bottle of Makers Mark. Otherwise, get whatever you like. (I'm a huge fan of Buffalo Trace or Four Roses.) Pro-tip: steer clear of Jack Daniels, it's not great in fancy cocktails.
Also pick up: sugar, ice, and an orange. We're going to make an Old Fashioned when you get back, one of the earliest recorded mixed drinks in America (first mentioned in the mid-1700's and concocted as a way of disguising the terrible quality of spirits available at the time).
How to make an Old Fashioned:
- Take a teaspoon of sugar, pop it in the bottom of a fancy tumbler and soak it with Angostura bitters (about four dashes, you'll learn to tweak this to your taste later).
- Add a tiny splash of water or an ice cube, and stir the sugar with that until it's all dissolved. Pro-tip: wait for a single ice cube to melt. That's about perfect, dilution-wise.
- Now pop in a couple of ice cubes and the first shot of bourbon. Stir this for about 30 seconds, then top up your glass with ice.
- Grab that orange and cut a segment of peel. You want a piece about 2 inches long and 2 centimetres wide, and try to cut it so there's as little of the white pith left on it as possible (a veg peeler is perfect for this).
- Hold the segment of peel between thumb and your first couple of fingers and 'snap' it over the ice (with the orange side pointing towards the ice). You should see a spray of orange oil settle over the drink.
- Pop in that second shot of bourbon along with the orange peel, give it a stir and settle down with some Coltrane on the stereo (or Abby Lee Miller shouting at some kids, whatever floats your boat).