Bourbon is an American original, that rare beast in the liquor pantheon, and one of a handful of domestic foodstuffs subject to manufacture and labeling standards as rigorous as those for Bordeaux wine or aceto balsamico tradizionale. By law, bourbon must be derived from a mash of at least 51 percent corn--the remainder typically consists of rye and malted barley. Blends based on 80 percent or more corn yield the un-oaked, straw-yellow corn whiskey, bourbon's historical predecessor. There are strict rules defining the alcohol mins and maxes at which bourbon may be distilled, aged (only in new, charred oak barrels) and bottled, and no additives or colorants of any kind are permitted. While it may originate anywhere in the United States, virtually all bourbon whiskey is still produced in Kentucky, where the distiller's methods have changed little since the Civil War.
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Walk the bourbon trail at any good liquor store and you'll spot a bewildering array of bottles at all price-points and quality levels. There are syrupy factory whiskeys not worth diluting your Coke (Jack Daniel's), more finessed, though still large-batch models that make adequate mixers (the chewy caramel Maker's Mark; Bulleit, lesser known but preferred by Drink Me) and ultra small-batch experimental one-offs, some aged for decades and stained the color of ancient redwood bark, that climb into the hundreds of dollars for a half-750ml flask.
Those willing to play in the $50-70 range will be rewarded. Van Winkle's (now distilling jointly with Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky) Special Reserve Lot "B" 12-year old, 90.4 proof edition delivers a mellow caramel nose and impeccably balanced sweet-hot notes of toast, coffee, cinnamon and char. This thoroughly approachable yet still top shelf elixir drinks subdued and rosy, the offspring of four generations of Van Winkle family distillation, employing wheat rather than rye to finish the mash for a smoother profile and better tolerance to age.
Noah's Mill handmade, hand-numbered 16-year old small batch bourbon is bottled at a transmogrifying 114.3 proof, a "strength that best complements it's [sic] age." Noah's whiskey wizards know of what they speak, even as they mis-punctuate. This is a colossal spirit--intricate, cashmere, sultry--cured to a mahogany hue not unlike that of a Chippendale chest. Flavors of toffee, brown butter, toasted wood and floral vanilla interleave, divulge themselves then submerge then reappear, set in motion by a hefty dose of alcohol that lends the distillate a sun-baked, vaporous character. It seems to waft across the blood-brain barrier while still on the tongue. At 50 bucks and change, this is an unimpeachable whiskey best enjoyed as a digestif--after dinner, with a cigar and gregarious company. Even though it's likely all you'll discuss is the remarkable stuff in your glass.
Drink Me next dabbles in grappa, once waste-product firewater, now craft nectar of the vineyard. All whiskeys mentioned are widely available at better liquor shops throughout Los Angeles, with the occasional exception of Noah's Mill.