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Sunday June 23, 2013

True American spirit

Besides their Town Branch Bourbon, Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling
Company also makes some excellent bourbon-barrel matured craft beers, like this
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Besides their Town Branch Bourbon, Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company also makes some excellent bourbon-barrel matured craft beers, like this Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.

Venturing out of Scotch whisky for a change, our columnist has a beginner’s sip of the quintessential American whiskey — bourbon.

LET’S talk about another type of whisky. Or to be exact, whiskey.

In a country like Malaysia where Scotch is king, whiskies from other countries tend to be criminally overlooked. Case in point, bourbon.

Bourbon is a type of whisky, sorry, whiskey that is made predominantly in the US state of Kentucky, from where it supposedly originated.

Like Scotch whisky, there are strict laws that regulate the production of bourbon. Besides having to be made within the US, bourbon also has to be made out of at least 51% corn grain.

“That’s probably the biggest difference between bourbon and scotch – single malt whisky only uses malted barley, while bourbon must use more than 50% corn. Because of that, bourbon tends to have a sweeter taste (compared to scotch),” said Mark P. Lyons, vice president of Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company.

Lyons was at the recently concluded Beerfest Asia 2013 in Singapore to promote his company’s craft beers (which included some excellent bourbon barrel-matured ales and stouts). His company also bottles a bourbon called Town Branch Bourbon back in Kentucky.

Some of the best-known brands of bourbon available in Malaysia right now include Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Bulleit and Knob Creek, though don’t be surprised to see other well-known brands such as Four Roses, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace (which also makes the very excellent George T. Stagg bourbon) on the shelves of local whisky bars (by the way, Jack Daniels is not a bourbon, but rather. a sour mash whiskey from Tennessee).

By law, bourbon also has to be distilled at less than 80% ABV, and matured for at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels (after which many of these barrels are shipped to Scotland to age Scotch whisky). The distillers also cannot alter the original colour and flavour of the whiskey in any way, so what comes out of the barrel is usually what you’ll get.

According to Lyons, bourbon takes its name from the Bourbon County in Kentucky, “During the revolutionary war when the Americans fought against the British, the French helped them, and one of the forts in Kentucky was named Bourbon County, after a French county in France,” he said. “Bourbon County then started making whiskey and they sent it down to New Orleans, where there was a street called Bourbon Street, and that’s where the name ‘bourbon’ stuck.”

Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t actually need to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon (though it does need to be made in the US), but most of the bourbon being produced today still comes from the state.

“Even though there are some people trying to make bourbon in other places now, almost 97% of bourbon is actually made in Kentucky,” said Lyons, adding that to be called Kentucky bourbon, the spirit has to be produced and matured for at least a year in Kentucky.

In the spirit of, er ... research, I decided to head to the Whisky Bar in Changkat Bukit Bintang to try out some of the bourbons that were available on their shelves. Naturally, we started out with probably the most recognisable name in the bourbon business globally: Jim Beam.

There were three different Jim Beam bourbons available at Whisky Bar – the flagship Jim Beam White Label, Jim Beam Black, and Jim Beam Small Batch. Of these, I liked the Small Batch the most, with its delicate sweet nose and wonderfully honey syrup flavour; though the sweet corn notes of the smooth Black stood out brilliantly as well.

Having sampled the Jim Beams, I then moved on to the stylish Maker’s Mark, with its square bottle and unique wax seal. Established in 1805, Maker’s Mark distillery is the US’ oldest working distillery still remaining on its original site, and the bourbon it makes definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the most drinkable bourbons in the market (it even uses the Scottish spelling “whisky” instead of “whiskey” on its labels.)

Maker’s Mark was one of the more palatable bourbons I’ve tried – the smoothness of the bourbon is wonderfully complemented by the lovely corn sweetness, and the finish is not as harsh as some of the other bourbons. If you ever get the chance, try the excellent Maker’s 46, which is aged longer, and exposed to charred French oak staves during the maturation process.

One of the more unique bottles that caught my eye at Whisky Bar was the Fighting Cock 6-Year-Old by Heaven Hill Distillery, which had a stunning illustration of a fighting rooster on its label, and turned out to be a smooth yet slightly feisty bourbon with a unique mouth feel and finish that really set it apart from the rest.

And staying with the, er ... feathery fowl theme, Wild Turkey is another brand of bourbon that is quite common in Malaysia, my favourite of which is the Wild Turkey 101 Proof, which at 50.5% ABV, is deceptively smooth and delicate, and packs a hefty punch.

So there you have it, a crash course on what bourbon is, and what it is like. One thing is for sure, after trying all those bourbons, I now look forward to exploring more of what this category has to offer. Now, if only someone would bring me a bottle of George T. Stagg from America ...

> Michael Cheang used to get confused over the whole ‘whisky/whiskey’ thing, and wishes someone would just get rid of that darn “e” once and for all. Reader response can be directed to star2@thestar.com.my

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