With two centuries of whiskey-making experience, it’s safe to say Kentucky knows what they’re doing when it comes to bourbon.
So what is it about Kentucky that makes for such great and distinctive whiskey?
The water in Kentucky was practically made for making bourbon. Kentucky sits on a bed of blue limestone, which acts as a natural water filter. The water picks up yeast-friendly minerals like calcium and magnesium from the rock as it flows through it, but the rock also filters out bitter-tasting elements like iron.
Kentucky also boasts some of the richest, most fertile soil in the US, which is ideal for growing the most important ingredient in bourbon: corn. By law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in its mash bill, but most of the time it contains way more -- between 60-80%.
Hot in the summer, cold in the winter: These shifts in temperature cause the wooden barrels to expand and contract during the aging process. As the barrel expands, the whiskey seeps in, absorbing the properties of the wood. As the barrel contracts, the whiskey is pushed back out, full of flavor and with its signature amber color.
So we know the location makes for great bourbon, but with well over 60 distilleries in Kentucky alone, how do you know where to start? Small batch bourbons from family-owned distilleries with a long history in the area are a great way to go.
Here are four stellar picks:
Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made from a blend of four different Kentucky bourbons, each distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg. Two of the bourbons are comprised of a mash of 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley, while the other two bourbons are comprised of a mash of 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley. Each of the bourbons is fermented with a unique, proprietary yeast culture used to bring about a specific flavor in the bourbon.
After distillation, each bourbon is aged for a minimum of four years at a one-story rickhouse maintained near the distillery. While most distilleries age bourbon in warehouses that are many stories high, Four Roses ages its bourbon in a one-story warehouse to ensure that each barrel is aged in a similar environment. After aging, the barrels are hand-selected and then blended together in order to create Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon.
The high rye content in two of the bourbons results in a rich, spicy flavor and contributes notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. In addition, the high corn content in the remaining two bourbons results in a lighter, fruitier flavor that balances out the spiciness with notes of maple syrup and caramel.
Fun Fact: Built in 1910, the distillery — now listed on the National Register of Historic Places — was one of six distilleries to be granted permission to operate during Prohibition in order to produce medicinal bourbon.
Old Forester Classic Kentucky Straight Bourbon is made from a mash of corn, rye, and malted barley. After the grains have been milled and mashed, they are fermented for five to seven days with a proprietary yeast strain that is grown fresh daily at the distillery. This extra-long fermentation process gives the bourbon depth and complexity. Following fermentation, the grains are twice distilled before being matured in new, American oak casks.
Old Forester Classic Kentucky Straight Bourbon has a sharp, sweet aroma filled with vanilla, tobacco, mint, and oak. It tastes a bit spicier, with initial caramel notes leading to flavors of toast and breakfast cereal. The finish is long and dry, with more oak and some light citrus flavors, including orange peel, bitter apple, and pear.
Fun fact: Old Forester Classic Kentucky Straight Bourbon touts itself as the first bourbon ever bottled.
During the late 19th century, an overwhelming number of distilleries throughout the United States were still not aging their whiskey. In fact, some retailers would add juices and syrups to sweeten the whiskey, while others would add acid and tobacco to give their whiskey its signature, amber hue.
In 1870, George Garvin Brown saw the need for a consistently high-quality whiskey. Brown aged his bourbon, which he named Old Forester, in oak casks and bottled it in a sealed glass bottle to ensure authenticity and quality. Since its introduction in 1870, Old Forester has been on the market continuously, even during Prohibition, when, like Four Roses, it continued to be sold for medicinal purposes.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made from a mash of yellow #2 dent corn, plump rye grains, and malted barley, which is cooked and cooled before being fermented for approximately 3-5 days. Once fermentation is complete, the bourbon is double-distilled through column stills before being aged in first-fill, American oak barrels (90% of the distillery’s oak is brought in from the Ozark Mountains) that have been aged for six months in the distillery’s yard before being heavily charred.
After spending at least eight years in these barrels, which are stored on the middle floors of the distillery’s warehouses to encourage the greatest temperature fluctuations, a maximum of 40 barrels at a time are hand-selected to create a single small batch of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey has a deep amber color and smells like vanilla, caramel, mint, and molasses. The flavor starts with sweet notes of brown sugar and toffee, which give way to oak, dark fruits, baking spices, and black licorice. The finish is both mellow and complex, with lingering notes of vanilla, oak, and rock candy.
Fun Fact: Buffalo Trace Distillery includes the rich legacies of master distillers such as E.H. Taylor, Jr, George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp, and Elmer T. Lee.
Pure Kentucky XO Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey is aged for about twelve years and bottled at an unusually robust proof of 107. This bourbon smells like sweet vanilla, cedar, and oak and tastes like spicy rye, vanilla, and maple syrup, with hints of cherry. The slightly salty finish is long and smooth with a lasting vanilla flavor.
Fun Fact: The "XO" in the name stands for "extra old."
Whiskey Tasting Tips: Follow the 5 "S's"
Observe the color of the whiskey. Usually, the darker the whiskey is in color, the more concentrated the flavor will be.
This "opens up" the whiskey by adding oxygen and makes the aromas more prevalent.
Unlike with wine, you don't want to stick your whole nose in the glass -- the high alcohol content will overwhelm your nostrils. Instead, give it a gentle sniff with your mouth slightly open.
Take a smaller sip than you would beer or wine, but don't be afraid to swish it around your mouth a little to allow it to coat all the different parts of your tongue. Pro tip: gently exhale through your mouth after swallowing--this reduces the burn and allows you to pick up more of the flavor profile.
Pay attention to the finish of the whiskey, and allow the flavors to unfold in your mouth before taking another sip.
Bonus Tip: Adding Water to Your Whiskey is A-Okay!
The higher the proof or ABV, the more the whiskey will benefit from having a few drops of water added. Water helps guaiacol molecules (which gives the liquor its signature smoky flavor) make their way to the top of the glass rather than remaining evenly distributed throughout. That means you get a more concentrated smell and flavor up front when you take a sip. If you're more of an ice person, a slow-melting ice cube will have the same effect.
Join the White Horse Whiskey Society
Want to expand your whiskey knowledge even further? Whether you love Bourbon, Scotch, Rye, or other Whiskeys, you will find like-minded individuals in the White Horse Wine & Spirits Whiskey Society. Membership is $99 for 6 months and includes a 10% discount on all non-sale whiskeys, monthly whiskey tasting events, and priority access to rare, limited-release whiskeys.