Pairing bourbon with cigars is a favorite pastime around here, and across the country many enthusiasts routinely enjoy this impeccable combination. In the not too distant past, both cigars and bourbon were far out of fashion, and were considered the affectations of stodgy old men sitting in overstuffed leather chairs. But in the 1990s cigars experienced a “boom” period where new boutique manufacturers burst on the scene and the old standbys experienced a record growth in sales. Over the past 15 years or so bourbon has experienced a renaissance, much like cigars did in the 1990s. While bourbon was once considered as your grandfather’s booze, it’s shed this stigma and has become the alcohol of choice among younger, well-heeled drinkers.
As recently as 2008 you could routinely find bottles of Pappy Van Winkle gathering dust on store shelves, and now in order to secure a bottle of the treasured elixir you’d either have to be incredibly lucky or be forced to pay-up in the grey market. This surge in popularity can be attributed to many factors: the popularity of the television show Mad Men, the mystique of bourbon being America’s native spirit (alcohol, not ghosts), the cyclical nature of trends, and for younger consumers not wanting to drink the same booze as your parents. From 1999 to 2013, bourbon production in Kentucky has more than doubled, and in addition to the tried and true brands, the bourbon boom has seen the rise of smaller, craft distilleries and limited edition bottlings.
Bourbon can be broken into two basic stylistic camps, “wheated” and “non-wheated.” Most bourbons are made with a mash of corn, rye, and barley, while others substitute wheat for rye in their mash. Non-wheated bourbons are generally spicier in their flavor profile, while the wheated varieties are known for their smoother and almost buttery profile. Examples of non-wheated bourbons include stalwarts like Bulleit, Old Grandad, and Jim Beam, while well-known wheated expressions include Maker’s Mark, any of the Van Winkle bourbons, and Rebel Yell.
We compiled a list of some of our favorite bourbons broken down into categories. Below, you’ll find our pick for a great everyday bourbon, under the radar brand, craft expression, and super-premium brand.
Every Day: Four Roses Single Barrel — A premium non-wheated single barrel bourbon with flavors you’ll want to revisit time and time again. Includes notes of fruit, maple syrup, and wood. This is a robust bourbon with a long, smooth finish.
Under the radar: Larceny 8 year — Larceny is a small batch wheated bourbon and is a part of the Heaven Hill family of spirits. The name derives from stories of John E. Fitzgerald’s (of Old Fitzgerald fame) habit of using his personal keys to the bourbon warehouses to acquire barrels of his favorite bourbon to give to family and friends. Flavor notes include buttery caramel, honey, and toffee, with a long, sweet, and savory finish.
Craft: Widow Jane 8 Year — The only choice on our list not made in Kentucky, this small-batch craft bourbon hails from New York State. What sets this bourbon apart is the pure, mineral rich, sparkling water from Rosendale limestone mine. This whiskey drinks more like a 20 year bourbon with its collection of deep cherry, cream, orange, and buttery notes with a pleasing lightly tannic finish.
Premium: Black Maple Hill 16 year old Small Batch — From the producers of Pappy Van Winkle, this wheated bourbon is becoming harder and harder to find. The flavor profile is very rich and profound, and will seduce your palate. Expect notes of pepper, fruit, toast, and butter with a wonderful aroma and tantalizing finish.