Food & Drink: Let's give thanks with a bottle of bourbon: In the spirit of transatlantic bonhomie, Michael Jackson does some research into American whiskeys

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ZINFANDEL, one of the most popular new restaurants in Chicago, serves fashionable American items such as crusted catfish with pumpkin seeds, and blue corn stew; its menu suggested that I arouse my appetite with a cocktail of rye whiskey, orange juice and grenadine.

At one table, the diners were passing round a bottle of bourbon after the appetisers, to refresh themselves for the main course. 'We are creating un trou bourbon,' one of them explained, in an echo of the French practice of taking a glass of calvados to make a 'hole' in the stomach.

The diners at Zinfandel were in their mid-40s. After dinner I was taken to a spot frequented by a younger crowd. Behind the bar, a blackboard listed the bourbons on offer: 30 or 40, from Ancient Age to Wild Turkey.

Just as Americans are rediscovering their culinary traditions, so they are gaining a new appreciation of their whiskeys (usually spelt with the 'e'). In Britain, too, we are beginning to realise that there is more to American food and drink than hamburgers and milk shakes, but although American restaurants keep popping up here, I have yet to experience one with a good selection of whiskeys, let alone food of Zinfandel's inventiveness.

Meantime, I may content myself with laying in a stock of bourbon and cooking my own dinner for Thanksgiving (24 November). I might depart from tradition and enliven the turkey with a barbecue sauce, so that its smokiness can be accentuated with a glass of maple-filtered Tennessee whiskey. I shall stick to sweeter bourbon, though, with pumpkin or pecan pie.

For what, as a Briton, will I be giving thanks? For the Scottish and Irish Presbyterians who emigrated to Maryland and Pennsylvania and, lacking sufficient good barley, used rye to create a whiskey; and for their offspring who added corn (maize) to the drink when they settled Kentucky and Tennessee.

Rye, oldest of these whiskeys, seemed for many years to have gone into semi-retirement, but is now becoming easier to find. The grain gives it an appetising, spicy character that I find almost minty.

Bourbon has the sweetness of corn, but it is also characterised by complementary vanilla-like notes and appleish tannins from the wood of the barrels. Unless the label specifies otherwise, Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is matured for a minimum of four years in oak, and usually for longer. The appellation allows the barrels to be used only once, thus ensuring a very oaky character. The wood is charred, often quite heavily, to accentuate this.

Jim Beam, the best known, is on the light side, with some winey notes. The most widely available of the more robust and traditional style is Wild Turkey. Despite its name, Rebel Yell is a lightly smooth, gently nutty and toasty bourbon - gaining some of its character from the use of wheat. The name is said to date from the 1880s or 1890s, and for much of its life the product was not sold north of the Mason-Dixon line.

A richer whiskey in a similar style is Maker's Mark. The distillery has begun to produce a yet more voluptuous style called Maker's Mark Select, but most of it seems to be going to Japan. Several other distillers are bottling 'small batch' bourbons from their best barrels: look out for Booker's, Baker's, Basil Haydon's, Blanton's and Knob Creek, especially in duty-free shops.

The 'sour mash' process is used by almost all distillers of bourbon, but is more loudly proclaimed by makers of Tennessee whiskey. It is simply a technique in which the residue of one batch is added to the next to ensure continuity of character.

The difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is the latter's insistence on filtration before maturation. Furthermore, this is a peculiarly intensive filtration, through 10ft of sugar-maple, for 10 days. The idea is to strip out harsh notes before the whiskey is aged. In my view, this filtration also removes some of the richness found in bourbon, though it adds that characteristically smoky note.

The best-known Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniel's, made in Lynchburg at a distillery registered after the Civil War in 1866. The charcoal-leaching process is said to have already been developed in 1825 by a whiskey- maker in nearby Tullahoma, but today's distillery there, George Dickel, traces its origins only to 1870.

Of the two Tennessee whiskeys, George Dickel is slightly lighter and sweeter. While four to five years has in the past been a typical maturation period for Tennessee whiskeys, George Dickel has in recent times been aged for up to 10. It is lightly creamy with notes of fudge, currants and lemon zest

I am not sure I can wait for Thanksgiving. I might just tune in to a late-night television movie and have a glass before bed tonight.

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