While I do love to eat lots of kale and practice yoga as often as I can, I also have been known to enjoy an occasional well-made craft cocktail. One of my favorite spirits is bourbon. Back when I worked on Wall Street, I was encouraged to adopt a drink of choice that would exude confidence and not appear girly when socializing with clients. This was when I started to order Scotch whiskey with club soda and to cultivate a palate for the taste of whiskey. To be honest, I did spend a lot of the time ordering club soda with lime and pretending it was a gin and tonic but it was the budding of my appreciation of classic, American craft cocktails. Once I left the corporate world – a place that favored Irish and Scotch whiskeys – I quickly learned that bourbon tastes even better and developed an interest in small-batch, artisanal varieties.
A typical consumer can often be confused by the difference between bourbon, whiskey, and rye until he or she really starts to get interested in a deeper study of the spirit family and begins to taste more varieties. Let’s clear this distinction up straight away. Whiskey or whisky (the spelling varies based on country of origin) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from a fermented grain mash (some combination of barley, corn, rye and/or wheat) that is usually aged in oak barrels. Rye, Bourbon, Irish Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Canadian Whisky and Japanese Whisky are all different types of whiskey – the difference is the production country, grain combination, and/or aging method. Rye whiskey, or rye, is produced in the U.S., must be made from a mash that is at least 51% rye, and is aged in new charred oak barrels. Canadian Whisky is also often called Rye Whisky because historically much of it was made with rye. Today there is no Canadian law that dictates which grains may be utilized so it cannot be sold with this name in the U.S.
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey thought to be named either for Bourbon County Kentucky where it was produced or from the days when Kentucky whiskey was shipped down the Ohio River and sold on Bourbon Street in New Orleans to French residents who were reminded of their beloved cognac from home (the debate is ongoing here and neither idea is completely accepted as the true origin). Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. – although much of the production still happens as it historically did in Kentucky. In accordance with a 1964 ruling of Congress, bourbon must be made in the U.S. with at least a 51% corn mash, no coloring or flavors may be added, and it must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels. If it is aged for two or more years it can be called straight bourbon whiskey. The barrels cannot be used again for bourbon aging but are often used to age other spirits, to flavor craft beers, for construct furniture and craft projects, or for cooking or smoking wood. (More information about Bourbon and a brief video can be found on Liquor.)
In the past few years I have personally enjoyed exploring the explosion of small, local producers in New York State – some are even located close to me in Brooklyn – that was made possible by 2007 Farm Distillery Act which reduced the barriers to entry in the state for opening up a distillery and opened the market to new small startups statewide. My favorite local producers include Kings County Distillery in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Cacao Prieto Distillery in Red Hook Brooklyn, Van Brunt Stillhouse in Red Hook Brooklyn, Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson River Valley, and Catskill Distilling Company in upstate New York. These producers are representative of the rapidly growing premium spirit production in the state that embraces local ingredients, small-scale production, and the creation of an artisanal product. They are more transparent than large-scale producers and encourage visitors by offering detailed public tours and tastings. I have been to all of the Brooklyn ones mentioned here as well as several other spirit producers in the state and I was greatly encouraged on these trips to see successful, dedicated, craft producers.
Many of you may be thinking that since most whiskey is made from a grain-based malt (of gluten-containing grains) that I am allowing gluten into my otherwise strictly gluten-free diet when I enjoy a cocktail. Most experts have concluded that distilled beverages are inherently free of gluten because the process of distillation removes the gluten protein from the grains. For me that is enough assurance and these spirits are also not something I consume daily or in great quantities. I am very particular about the producers I purchase from and favor those with smaller production operations that I know a good deal about. It is important to know that trace amounts of gluten may still be present (this is of most concern in mass-produced spirits that utilize additives and coloring in the production process) in some whiskeys so for those who are celiac or very sensitive and it is probably best to proceed with caution and stick with spirits that are not grain-based such as potato vodkas.
Here are a few of my favorite go-to bourbon cocktail recipes - let me know how you like them. Enjoy!
Brown Derby Cocktail
Ingredients per cocktail:
- 1.5 ounces bourbon
- 1 ounce of freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice
- .5 ounce of homemade honey syrup*
Shake with ice. Strain and serve straight up in a mini coup or over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Optionally, you can garnish with a thyme sprig, which is especially nice if you used the thyme-infused honey syrup, or other fresh herbs such as basil, mint or rosemary. This drink is pictured above.
*Honey syrup is made with equal parts honey and water. Pour desired amount of honey into a heatproof measuring cup and then pour an equal amount of boiling water (I use a tea kettle) over it. Stir to ensure it is completely mixed. Once it is cooled it can be used. If you are adding a flavor-infusion make the syrup at least a few hours in advance of cocktail time. For that variation, add the infusion in straight away after the water and pour into a glass bottle with a cap to infuse once cooled. My favorite infusions include lemon peels, orange peels, and fresh thyme but there are certainly many others that could work well. The cooled syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Ingredients per cocktail:
- 2 ounces bourbon
- 1 ounce honey syrup or agave
- .5 ounce of freshly-squeezed lime juice (I like lime best since it is citrusy but mild, in a pinch you can use lemon which will be more tart and tangy)
- 3 dashes of bitters – my favorites are the Hella Bitters Citrus and Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters
Shake with ice. Serve strained into an old fashioned glass with a large ice cube** (this really does make a difference!). Optionally garnish with lime peel or fresh herbs – I love to place thyme sprigs in the drink to compliment a thyme-infused honey syrup when I have it on hand.
** Large round and square ice-cube trays can be found in stores and online. The round ones look quite fancy but the square versions are easier to store and deal with. Here are the ones I have Tovolo Sphere and Tovolo King Cube.
Blood Orange Old-Fashioned
Ingredients per cocktail:
- 2 ounces bourbon
- .25 ounce agave
- 2-3 dashes of grapefruit bitters
- .5 ounce of blood orange juice (their season is between December and May, you can skip this addition or use other citrus fruits in the other months)
Stir with ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass with ice – use a large cube if you have them. Garnish with a piece of a blood orange peel or a slice of blood orange.