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Turnbulls Drinks for Cheese Guide: Bourbon

The Bourbon

Your match is an aged Bourbon.

BodyFull bodied and powerful with alcohol and oak and caramel
Grain flavoursCorn: caramel, honey or cornbread. Rye: spices Barley: cream, nuts or malt
Making flavoursMashing and Fermentation: fruits (sometimes apple, pear), esters, floral
Aging flavoursOak, cedar, sawdust
Vanilla, caramel, toffee
Spices: cinnamon, clove, and black pepper
Leather, tobacco
Dried Fruits: raisins, figs, dates
Nuts: almond or walnut
Dark chocolate, cocoa

More about Bourbon

Bourbon is often described as America’s home spirit. It’s widely believed to have been named after Bourbon County, Kentucky. The region has proved ideal for growing the grains required for whiskey production.

Distillation techniques came over from Europe with the settlors, which, as is the way, they adapted to local ingredients. Corn’s high sugar content became the primary grain distinguishing bourbon from other whiskeys. The other key innovation in bourbon is aging in new charred oak barrels. This gives the characteristic caramel and vanilla notes.

Bourbon’s reputation has passed thorough the ages of small distillers, prohibition, mass production, emerging brands that are now huge businesses, and mass commercialisation and export. It is a global phenomenon to equal scotch whisky.

Like cheese Bourbon has large producers and artisan distillers, grand old family stills and new craft up-and-comers. The astonishing and constantly impressive way it ages in barrels, sometimes for decades, makes it one of the world’s great and most complex drinks.

How is bourbon made: Bourbon is made a from a mix of grains including corn, barley, rye, and wheat. The grains are mashed, mixed with water, and fermented using yeast to create a mash. Unlike European whiskies, the grains are not germinated. The mash is heated to develop the sugars, and then distilled to separate alcohol from impurities. This is called “white dog” or clear whiskey. It’s then aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years, often longer, which imparts colour and flavour, especially the caramel notes common in many bourbons.

The aging process is crucial, as it mellows the spirit and adds complexity. Bourbon is finally bottled at a specific proof, typically around 40-60% alcohol by volume, for sale.

More detailed tasting notes

Bourbon flavours can be broken down into taste from the grains, tastes from the maker’s skills, and flavours from the aging process:

Taste from the Grains
  • Corn: Bourbon, by definition, must contain at least 51% corn in its grain mash. Corn contributes to a sweetness, which can develop into caramel, honey or cornbread.
  • Rye: Rye grains can add a spicy and peppery character. When bottled this might manifest as black pepper, cinnamon, or an unspecified subtle bite.
  • Barley: Barley is generally used in smaller quantities. It can contribute creamy, nutty or malty undertones.
Flavours from the Bourbon Maker
  • Mashing and Fermentation: The choice of yeast and fermentation duration can influence the fruity, estery, and floral notes in bourbon. Some bourbons may have hints of apple, pear, or floral undertones.
  • Distillation: The distillation process can impact the purity and intensity of flavours. Column stills may produce a lighter, more delicate spirit, while pot stills can yield a richer, fuller-bodied character.
  • Proofing: The choice of proof (alcohol content) at which the bourbon is distilled and bottled can affect its perceived sweetness, spiciness, and overall balance.
Flavours from Aging in new Barrels

New barrel aging relies on the unlocking and developing the White Dog, hence the flavours you will experience will vary from bottle to bottle and maker to maker. Here are some flavours that you might encounter and are worth searching for:

  • Oakiness: Oak is prominent in aged bourbon. You might also find notes like cedar and sometimes sawdust.
  • Vanilla: Rich, sweet vanilla can be quite pronounced.
  • Caramel: Over time caramel develops, a key identifier of bourbon. this can develop into or alongside toffee notes.
  • Spices: Cinnamon, clove, and black pepper.
  • Leather: Aged bourbon can exhibit leather, reminiscent of old leather-bound books.
  • Tobacco: Some bourbons carry tobacco leaf or smoky tobacco undertones.
  • Dried Fruits: Aging can bring dried fruit like raisins, figs, or dates.
  • Nuts: Notes such as almond or walnut may develop.
  • Chocolate: Dark chocolate or cocoa notes can add another layer of richness to enjoy.

Tasting notes can therefore vary widely between different bourbon expressions. Tasting bourbon is as diverse as the American spirit.

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