When you’re talking about bourbon, the discussion usually starts with grain. It’s got to be 51% corn, that’s the big rule you’ll hear first. After that you can have a combination of grains including rye, malted barley, and wheat. And of course, it has to be made in ‘Murica! You’ll also learn that it has to be aged in new, charred oak. A fact that doesn’t sound all that interesting; I can’t remember the last time I was at a party and struck up a conversation about cooperage (challenge accepted!). But once you start leaning into the science of aging whiskey, you’ll find that it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of bourbon production.
Almost all of the American white oak for Kentucky bourbon is grown in the Ozarks. One tree typically yields two 53 gallon barrels (the industry standard size for most distilleries), and the trees are typically harvested at around 100 years of maturity. That’s pretty crazy right? Now think about the fact that there are more bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than there are residents of the state. That is a metric heck ton of trees ya’ll. (And you better believe they’re planting just as fast as they can.)
What makes the wood so important? American oak has hundreds of flavor compounds, and as those interact with the distillate over time, the liquid absorbs those qualities. Vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, allspice, coconut -- none of those flavors come from the distilled grains themselves, these are all a gift from the wood.
To access those flavors, you must first char the barrel. That involves a very hot flame that essentially cooks the inside of the barrel, caramelizing the sugars from the sap. The most intense form of char that many distilleries use to accomplish that “classic” bourbon profile is called Alligator char (No. 4.) Imparting color as well as flavor, this is where your white dog officially becomes bourbon. Now you can see why the type of wood used is so important, and why using it is mandatory for the spirit to be labeled as bourbon.
And then we go down the rabbit hole. What about other kinds of wood? How do they affect the spirit they interact with? Where do we start? Probably with French oak, the next most commonly used wood in barrel making. But Limosin or Monzelum black oak? Then we have native woods such as Mizunara in Japan, Garryana (a type of white oak) in Oregon, Chestnut in Germany, Amburana in Brazil. Each has its own specific flavor profile, and those profiles can be changed based on how much you char or toast the wood. It’s not just the salt and pepper, it’s the dry rub and the sauce. What comes off the whiskey still is raw, savory and sweet, and not at all unpleasant. But it is immature, and lacking in depth. In the life cycle of whiskey, this “new make” is the caterpillar, and what emerges from barrel is the butterfly.
All the old amari on the bar
They collect dust, don't you know
And all those grappas no one drinks
It’s kinda sad that people think they’re gross.
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh waaay ohhhhhh
Drink like an Italian...
Maley Aperitivo Sidro Pommerbe, Valle d’Aosta
It’s not a vermouth, it’s not a cider, it’s Pommerbe! The next time you find yourself heading to a dinner party, bring a chilled bottle of this along with you for aperitif hour. Impress your friends with your knowledge of esoteric spirits. Produced by the only cider maker in Northern Italy’s Valle d’Aosta (ever since that pesky Mussolini considered cider to be too French and outlawed it), Pommerbe is a fortified apple cider infused with herbs and spices. Coming in at 18% ABV it’s light and easy to drink, just serve over ice with a twist of citrus or have fun with it in cocktails. Either way, prepare some space in your fridge for a bottle.
Nardini Tagliatella, Bassano
Now infused with more pasta! J/k. This is an aperitif that you could describe as a cocktail in a bottle, ready to drink with some ice and an orange peel, just top it with a splash of soda water, tonic, or a dry sparkling wine. This fruity aperitivo drinks like a cross between rosso vermouth and a sweeter amaro and weighs in at a respectable 35%. It’s a one-liter bottle, for those inclined to share with friends, but no one will judge you for keeping it all to yourself.
Amara Amaro, Sicily
Approachable and citrusy, and a killer cocktail ingredient. Made from Sicilian blood oranges sourced from Mt Etna, it’s both rich and bright, while retaining a nice bitter finish. Fans of Amaro Montenegro might enjoy sipping this, as would those who enjoy a nip of Grand Marnier. Lots of citrus peel and zest. And while it’s quite nice to sip after dinner, I would also recommend this as your new go-to orange liqueur for Margaritas (made with mezcal of course).
Bresca Dorada Mirto, Sardinia
It’s not surprising if you haven’t tried Mirto before. A staple of the mediterranean island of Sardinia, this liqueur is made from the berries (and sometimes leaves) of the myrtle tree. There are very few commercially produced Mirtos in existence, so to find one in the states is a treat. Typically this traditional spirit is made in Saridian households from family recipes, or in restaurants as a house specialty. The producers of Bresca Dorada got their start as honey producers, so it was natural for them to add the local honey as a sweetener to their Mirto, giving it another layer of depth. Enjoy after dinner as you would an amaro or Limoncello.
Bonnollo Grappa Amarone Barrique, Moderna
A lot of people think of grappa as passe, harsh, and possibly a distant relative to paint thinner. Just like with bad tequila, a bad grappa experience can be haunting. Let’s get you acquainted with an underappreciated category that’s been tainted by a few bad apples. First, start with a fresh pomace. The remnants of winemaking, this can include the skins, pulp, stems and seeds leftover from pressing the grapes. Using them immediately for distillation, rather than letting them sit and oxidize, makes a tremendous difference in quality. Add one extra step, barrel aging in large Amarone wine casks, and you get an elegant, after dinner sipper that will blow away all your misconceptions about the much-maligned spirit.
By Nat Harry, Spirits Buyer
Usually, if I had to pick one spirits category to throw shade at, it would be Bourbon. It just so happens that bourbon is also one of the --- if not the most --- popular spirits in the US right now, no thanks to cult bottlings that I won’t name here. (Maybe that’s why it’s so fun to pick on; it’s no longer an underdog.) It’s the cool kid at school right now, overvalued yet underrated, as collectors drive up prices, yet rarely stop to consider what’s in the bottle, where it came from and the people who made it. If I’d walked up to bourbon in the lunchroom a few weeks ago, I’d have said, “whiskey, ya basic.”
But then I went to Louisville to get a look behind the curtain, and found myself warming back up to the spirit like a Kentucky hug. It’s the drink of bootleggers and grandparents. Nothing fancy about it really. The base is simple: corn, rye, barley, sometimes wheat. The charred American oak, imparting its rich color and flavor. Legally, the minute that juice hits the inside of the barrel it can be called bourbon. That means a good producer must have integrity. Whiskey takes time and patience, heat and cold. Standing in a rickhouse, hundreds of barrels aging above your head, the whole things starts to feel more complex. And then of course you have the people who make it.
The charming thing about the folks who are involved in the whiskey business in Kentucky is that they’re proud of what they do, even a simple task like hand labeling a bottle. They also have stories, like any good Southerner. Some of it’s American history, the good and the bad. A haunted building, stones held together with mud and horsehair, supposedly haunted by a long dead colonel. The people who ferried barrels down the Ohio river, connecting with the Mississippi, onward to New Orleans to deliver rye whiskey that would later create the Sazerac cocktail. They left their families for two years, lives always in danger from pirates and marauders.
And Freddy, our tour guide at Buffalo Trace, whose father also worked at the distillery his whole life. Freddy’s dad rolled out a very special milestone barrel of Pappy Van Winkle (I had to say it eventually) the day he retired, shared a bottle with his son and taught him the importance of living in the moment. His dad passed away shortly after. Freddy wanted to pass that message along: to not save things, but to enjoy them in the moment. These are the little stories that made me warm back up to bourbon; the history and the people, every bit --- if not more --- important than the liquid in the glass.
By Nat Harry, Sprits Buyer
Two years ago, the most popular toy on the shelf was a bottle of Yamazaki 12 year. It moved fast, and there was plenty to be had. And if you were a fan of Japanese whiskey before the articles and reviews and ratings that made it highly sought after -- dare I say trendy! -- I wish I had some good news for you. Japanese single malts are an endangered species, and not just in whiskey thirsty markets like the Bay Area; stock is dry everywhere. For those of you late to the party, you’ve heard countless times, after asking for age statement bottles, “that’s no longer available.” Even the non age statement whiskeys are slowly disappearing. But some good has come from this; you just need to be up for a bit of adventure.
The good news: there’s a ton of interesting Japanese whiskey for you to try that wouldn’t be on the shelves if not for the popularity of those single malts such as Nikka, Yamazaki and Hibiki. I’m talking about whiskey made from rice. While technically considered a whiskey by US standards, you could certainly make the case for describing it as a barrel aged shochu. Whatever you choose to call it, these rice whiskeys are unique and quite tasty. Flavor profiles can vary vastly depending on what sort of barrel it was aged in, so you won’t get bored any time soon.
Here are a few we recommend you try:
Kikori -- They’re making a great entry level rice whiskey that will appeal to many palates. It’s aged for about three years, primarily in New American with some time in Oloroso and Limousin barrels. It’s very light, a bit fruity, and extremely food friendly. I would recommend sipping this neat with sushi, or making a highball that’s perfect as an aperitif or alongside your meal.
Fukano -- This malted rice distillate is aged in new charred oak, so it gets dark and toasty. As far as flavor profile, this lands more along the lines of a traditional whiskey, nutty and rich, but also quite elegant. Due to Japanese labeling laws currently having no category for this spirit, these are only available outside of Japan.
Ohishi -- Founded in 1872, they are primarily known for sake and shochu production, sourcing all of their rice from the region and even growing a percentage of it themselves. My favorite fun fact about their estate grown rice: they use koi fish as a natural “weed killer,” as they love to snack on the weeds that pop up in the rice paddies. They produce both brandy- and sherry- barrel aged whiskeys, unfiltered.