Some say bourbon whiskey received its moniker from Bourbon County, which is in upstate Kentucky. According to Louisville, Ken., historian Michael Veach, who is regarded as the city’s unofficial “bourbon ambassador,” it’s more likely bourbon was named for two brothers from Cognac, France, who moved to Louisville and began shipping whiskey to New Orleans, where the tipple was all the rage on Bourbon Street. The frequent request for Bourbon Street whiskey was shortened to bourbon, and the rest is history. Almost.
Much of bourbon’s past is hazy is at best. It is unclear who first started distilling the elixir we now know as bourbon, nor is it known exactly when America’s native spirit was born. What constitutes bourbon, however, is holy writ.
As noted by the Smithsonian, official bourbon is defined by six standards: The spirit must be constituted of at least 51 percent corn, distilled with an alcohol content lower than 160 proof (or 80 percent), barreled at lower than 125 proof, kegged and aged in charred white-oak barrels, can include no artificial colors or flavor, and, most important, must be made in the U.S. of A.
Key to making bourbon is the combination of corn, high-quality water (preferably spiked with limestone, which is abundant in Kentucky and makes the Bluegrass State the bourbon capital of the world), and aging. The latter, according to the Bourbon Heritage Center, was probably the result of slow transportation in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Due to the nature of the harvest, whiskey was traditionally made in the fall, after corn crops were brought in during the summer. However, the whiskey couldn’t be shipped down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers until spring, when the currents were advantageous, so spirits had to sit a spell, quietly absorbing the qualities of the oaken barrels in which they were held. The result was a rich, woody flavor and deep amber color. Charring the interior of the barrel—another practice whose exact origins have been lost to time—further added to the complexity of the taste.
In honor of autumn and September’s distinction as Bourbon Month, we sampled three varieties of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. The results were surprising.
Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve, $20.95 Packaged in a squat bottle that showcases its dark coloration (an indication of its high 45.3 percent alcohol by volume), this Louisville-born and aged whiskey boasts a powerful astringent nose evoking the sour tones of rye whiskey. It is smoother on the palate, with a definite oaken quality and plenty of heat. The sour character, however, fails to fade going down, leaving its edges with a few splinters.
Basil Hayden’s, $42.95 Basil Hayden’s is as subdued as Rebel Yell is raucous. Clocking in at 80 proof—10 proof lower than Rebel Yell—the nose is much less pronounced and carries an elegant, almost floral tone. From its packaging, which includes a paper apron looped over the neck of the bottle and a wood-and-metal band around the middle, to its higher price point, cracking open a fifth of Basil Hayden’s feels like an event. In the mouth, though, the party carries on without much volume. It’s a pleasant melange of flavors including spice and light citrus, but the result may be a little thin for some tastes. As one panelist put it, “It feels like oak instead of mahogany.” That said, if you’re a bourbon drinker who values subtlety, Basil Hayden’s should earn a place on your next liquor order.
Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, $21.95 With our selection of bourbons arrayed before us, our initial thought was that Basil Hayden’s would come out on top, followed by Rebel Yell and then the Jim Beam. Call it snobbery, but we associate the red JB logo with mass-market, lower-shelf whiskey—the Devil’s Cut packaging, similar to any number of gimmicky flavored boozes, doesn’t do it any favors, either. Well, Mr. Beam showed us we have a few things to learn. Devil’s Cut isn’t as dark in the bottle as Rebel Yell but is far deeper in color than Basil Hayden’s, and the nose is the more balanced of the three with a robust, woody character girded by rich caramel. Creamy in the mouth with caramel and vanilla tones, it dissolves into a fine spiciness that carries just the right amount of heat (an accomplishment considering it’s 90 proof). The roundness that typifies Devil’s Cut—taken from the term used by distillers for the amount of bourbon that seeps into the wood of the whiskey barrel—combined with its reasonable price tag make it worthy of purchase.
Bottom’s Up Rebel Yell warms all right, but its in-your-face flavor profile does little to comfort. If the goal is to take a slug and let out a war whoop, Rebel Yell does its job. If you’re looking for a sipping whiskey to accompany a good conversation, we’d suggest looking elsewhere. Basil Hayden’s meanwhile, may go a little too far in the other direction. There is clearly complexity in a glass of Basil Hayden’s and no small amount of craft, but it’s lacking some final oomph to let its assuredly high quality shine. For our money (literally), the Devil makes the cut. When a sip of whiskey immediately makes you think of a steak dinner followed by a cup of vanilla ice cream and a fine cigar, you’ve got a winner.