It's Thanksgiving Day on Thursday, and what could be more traditional than a taste or two of America's national drink to follow all that turkey and pumpkin pie? Michael Jackson shows you the way to the next whiskey bar and explains why bourbon is coming into a class of its own

Bourbon seems always to be on the brink of a fashion breakthrough. The word is once again on the street, and especially in Trafalgar Square, where Britain's first bourbon bar opened recently. I might pop in next Thursday to celebrate the voyage of the Mayflower and all that followed. I hope Admiral Nelson will turn a blind eye to any Stars and Stripes.

Bourbon seems always to be on the brink of a fashion breakthrough. The word is once again on the street, and especially in Trafalgar Square, where Britain's first bourbon bar opened recently. I might pop in next Thursday to celebrate the voyage of the Mayflower and all that followed. I hope Admiral Nelson will turn a blind eye to any Stars and Stripes.

Sales of bourbon in Britain are set to increase by 35 per cent in the next four years, according to the market research company Mintel. Not bad when you consider that people are hesitant to ask for something when they are not sure how. The British tend toward a French-ish "boor-bon". The Americans make it sound like "berben".

Why a French name for an American drink? Because the French helped the Americans in their War of Independence. The Americans responded by giving French names to towns, cities and counties: the state of Kentucky has, for example, Louisville, Versailles and Bourbon County.

It is not certain whether bourbon was ever produced in the eponymous county, but it was certainly shipped from there, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the fleshpots of New Orleans, still one of the liveliest cities in the United States in which to eat and drink. This route was America's greatest highway before the railroads and blacktops. The journey made bourbon the national spirit.

America's first spirit was New England rum, based on sugar from the Caribbean, and an element in the triangular trade of slave days. The Land of the Free is more to my taste, and freedom and whisky go together, as Robert Burns testified.

Scottish and Irish immigrants finally gave the United States something that is distinctly its own. They brought with them the art of distilling barley malt, but also used local grains.

Somewhere along the trail, the Scottish spelling lost out to the Irish one: whiskey. The end result is not an imitation of the traditionally malty, smoky whiskies of Scotland; nor of the oilier Irish whiskeys, with their flavours of unmalted barley. American whiskeys are in styles of their own.

The first American whiskeys were made in Pennsylvania and Maryland, from rye. American literature seemed to be lubricated with rye whiskey long after distilling had largely moved to the newer states of Kentucky and Tennessee, where the warmer weather favoured corn (maize).

Bourbon whiskey is made principally from corn, though a proportion of rye (or, in some examples, wheat) is also used, and some barley malt. Each batch must be matured in a barrel freshly made from new oak if it is to be labelled Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.

This provision is said to have derived from lobbying by the late Congressman Wilbur Mills from Arkansas on behalf of local oak-growers. In a tragi-comic postscript, Mills became an alcoholic, and resigned after an incident with an Argentine stripper called Fanne Fox.

His legacy was to ensure the dominant aromas and flavours of bourbon. The sweet creaminess of the corn is rounded out by the vanilla-like flavours of fresh oak, sometimes with a hint of apple from the tannins. These flavours seem to me a perfect prelude, or even an accompaniment, to the typically sweet dishes of Thanksgiving: the cornbread and stuffed turkey, the pumpkin and pecan pies. I like to lay it on with a trowel, and add bourbon to the crème Chantilly that accompanies my pecan pie.

Five favourites (and a joker in the pack)

Pick of the week: Wild Turkey sounds especially appropriate for Thanksgiving. This distillery produces a rye and several bourbons. Its "101 Proof" is the classically robust traditional bourbon, with flavours reminiscent of molasses, raisins and pecan nuts. £18.99 from Booth's supermarkets.

Best seller: Jim Beam White Label. Lighter in both flavour and body. Sweet, fruity, winey. This distillery also pioneered the fashionable "small batch" bourbons, such as Booker's – wonderfully big, firm, fat, tongue-coating and complex. This is named after Booker Noe, who selects the casks for the bottling.

Noe, a huge man, is the grandson of the original Jim Beam. Booker Noe once drove me around Kentucky in his pick-up truck, reminiscing en route about the days when the distillery was a wooden building that quaked when the grains were stirred in the mash-tubs. £15.99 from Waitrose.

Urban cowboy: Bulleit, a newish bourbon, with leather, saddlery and tobacco in the aroma; vanilla, and honey in the palate; and gunsmoke in the finish. £15.99 from Tesco.

Southern belle: Woodford Reserve. Parma violets in the bouquet. Flavours reminiscent of black chocolate with stem ginger and almonds. Black coffee in the finish. £22.99 from Sainsbury's.

Southern gentleman: Maker's Mark typifies a bourbon made with wheat. Smooth, urbane and seductive in a mint julep. £19.99 from Oddbins.

Mistaken identity: Though it's often thought to be a bourbon, Jack Daniel's is not – and nor is it a rye, as one alleged drinks writer recently pronounced. It is a Tennessee whiskey. The difference? It is leached through 10 feet of charcoal for 10 days before being matured, hence its distinctive smoky flavour. It costs £17.99 or less from all major supermarkets and wine merchants nationwide.

All these drinks are available from Oddbins. Other specialist suppliers include: Vintage Hallmark of St James's, 36 St James's Street, London SW1 (020-7408 1999) www.hallmarkofstjames.com; and Vintage House, 42 Old Compton Street, London W1 (020-7437 2592).

Cutting-edge comforts

An idea borrowed from the Scots: wood finishes. Jim Beam finished in a cognac cask is very new, and as yet hard to find. Perhaps a Kentucky bourbon producer will follow the Texas whiskey McKendric, which is flavoured with mesquite chips.

This is a favourite of Stephen Ham at the Rockwell Bourbon Bar in the Trafalgar Hilton, 2 Spring Gardens, London SW1 (020-7870-2959).

The Rockwell's best sellers are classic cocktails such as The Old Fashioned (rye or bourbon with sugar, bitters and an orange garnish; many refinements and variations). Or, celebrating the resilient city: the Manhattan (similar, with sweet vermouth and a maraschino cherry). I asked Stephen to propose something more wintry. His use of sweet potato seemed appropriate for Thanksgiving, and I found the vegetable in my local (small) branch of Tesco. You'll need a juicer for this recipe.

The Kentucky Comforter

Two parts of sweet-potato juice to one part of bourbon. Two level teaspoons of Demerara sugar. Three or four leaves of garden mint (tear them, to release the flavour). Shake with ice, and strain frothily into a highball glass. Garnish with mint.

Chapters and history

Classic Bourbon, Tennessee and Rye Whiskey by Jim Murray (Prion, £12.99; first published in 1998) is a handy-sized hardback. It includes a concise history, an A to Z of distilleries, and tasting notes. Murray, an Englishman who initially wrote about Scottish and Irish whisk(e)y, became so enamoured of bourbon that he bought a house in Kentucky.

Another Englishman, Gary Regan, was a bartender at a pub specialising in Scotch whiskies in Manhattan. The pub has long gone, but Regan has moved on to American whiskies.

His Book of Bourbon, written with Mardee Haidin, was published in 1995 by Chapters, of Shelburne, Vermont.

Michael Jackson's World Guide to Whisky, with an extensive chapter on American whiskeys, was first published in 1987 (Dorling Kindersley). All three of these books are still in print.

Website: www.whiskymag.com

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