Good things in small batches

Kentucky Bourbon is casting off its backwoods `Urban Cowboy' image with specialist, aged bottlings.
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The Independent Culture
Fancying something different, I poured myself a glass of Woodford Reserve the other day. It sounds, perhaps intentionally, like a New World wine, but this is a Kentucky Bourbon. I sipped the flowery-tasting distillate, with a splash of water but no ice, while preparing my dinner of crab cakes and corn fritters. A whiskey with the spicier flavours of rye, like Old Overholt or Old Potrero, would have been a better match, geographically speaking.

Rye whiskey was originally made in Maryland, where Chesapeake Bay yields the tastiest crabs. On the other hand, Kentucky Bourbon whiskeys, which also usually contain a proportion of rye, are principally distilled from corn (51 per cent) - suiting the fritters with my dinner. Hence the Woodford.

Had I been planning a barbecue, I might have chosen the third great style of US whiskey, a Tennessee distillate such as Jack Daniel's or George Dickel. These too are primarily distilled from corn, but have, to my palate, a distinctly smoky taste, from the painstaking Tennesseean practice of filtering whiskey through 10 feet of charcoal.

People who enjoy a drink don't need reminding to open a bottle at sundown, but turning to a different tipple adds variety. I was having a dry-run (well, actually, it was wet) for Thanksgiving, which leaves me two months to choose a Bourbon and refine my menu for 25 November.

American whiskeys lost some of their identity when they were obliged to hide in cocktails during Prohibition, but in the past decade have rediscovered their confidence. Globalisation is a two-sided coin: the Americans discover single malt Scotches; we dally with Bourbon.

The dalliance perhaps started with the Urban Cowboy appeal of popular Bourbons like Jim Beam. Then came more sophisticated examples such as Maker's Mark, Weller and Old Fitzgerald (all with a proportion of wheat). Ever fancier-looking bottlings are percolating into the market. Some bear the legend "small batch". What constitutes "small" is not specified, but the implication is that these were bottled from barrels that have aged especially well.

Bourbon without an age statement on the label will be at least four years old, but the more luxurious examples often have a longer maturation of up to 15 years (very occasionally they'll be older). All Bourbon is by law aged in new oak, which releases a compound called vanillin. This imparts flavours reminiscent of vanilla, typical in Bourbons.

The release of vanillin also stimulates a chain reaction that creates fruity, chocolatey, minty, spicy flavours. The longer the maturation, the more intense and complex these flavours are likely to be, until the point when the wood is exhausted. Beyond that, unpleasantly musty or matchwood flavours can develop. The speed of maturation will vary according to the strength of the whiskey, the weather, and even the barrels' position in the warehouse.

Most whisk(e)y is diluted with water, variously in the barrel and bottle, to reach the internationally typical strengths of 40 or 43 per cent alcohol by volume. Some of these small-batch Bourbons are bottled at much higher potencies. Does that matter, since the drinker will usually add water? The strength at which the spirit is distilled, and the stages at which it is diluted before bottling, all influence the flavour. I also prefer the whiskey in as natural a state as possible, so I can make my own decisions about the degree of dilution.

I recently tasted a representative selection of examples available in Britain. At the light-bodied end of the scale, I especially enjoyed Basil Haydon's (eight years old, 40 per cent; pounds 30-plus), with a tobacco-like fragrance and briar-ish fruitiness. For a Bourbon, this has a high percentage of rye. Kentucky Vintage (no age statement, 45 per cent; pounds 25-30) has a rhubarby aroma and a minty palate.

Blanton's Single Barrel (no age statement, 46.5 per cent; about pounds 45) had aromas and flavours reminiscent of date-boxes, Turkish delight and cedar. Rowan's Creek (12 years old, 50.05 per cent; pounds 30-40) was chocolatey, cakey, somewhat reminiscent of Yorkshire parkin (a pricey treat on bonfire night?). This one seemed to fall apart when water was added. Baker's (seven years old, actually distilled at 53.5 per cent, with no dilution; around pounds 37) had the crispness of peanut brittle, but great depth and length, even after heavy dilution. The relatively low strength of distillation makes for that fullness of flavour. Booker's (eight years, 62.65 per cent; pounds 42.85) was wonderfully fat and smooth, with luscious flavour development. The Woodford (eight years, 45.2; pounds 20-25) was relatively light in body, but assertive in those flowery, violet-like flavours. Noah's Mill (15 years, 57.15 per cent; pounds 40-plus) was the richest of the selection.

Would they appreciate such descriptions in Kentucky? I am sure they would in Louisville, in the oaky luxury of the Seelbach Hotel, where Scott Fitzgerald once drank. I'm less sure about the judgment of a moonshiner with whom I once enjoyed a tasting in an abandoned tobacco barn in the Smokey Mountains. "The judge jailed me for six months for making this stuff," he told me, proudly. "Then they tried to give me parole after three. I told them I was in for the full stretch. I know my rights."

Stockists: Oddbins, Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Fortnum and Mason; Milroy's and Vintage House (both in Soho, central London); and specialist wine merchants