Resurgin’ Bourbon: An all-American spirit rises again

For a slideshow of bourbon cocktails around town click here.

For a slideshow of how to make bourbon cocktails at home click here.

Distillers throughout the world make whiskey, but bourbon, now that’s a spirit born in the USA. But we haven’t always waved the flag for this native son. American whiskey – both bourbon and rye – took a dive in the 1970s vodka heyday and finally bottomed out in the 1990s. But if America is known for one thing, it’s innovation. And now, such novel thinking has primed an all-American comeback, leading this corn-based spirit’s long-awaited return to the barfly’s snifter.

“The explosion occurred in the last five years,” said Dave Davis, resident whiskey expert at The Wine Merchant in Clayton, “but it started about 10 years ago with a gradual expanse in popularity. People realized how good American whiskey was.”

Today, distilleries use catch words like “small batch,” “single barrel” and “barrel strength” to drive sales and create new interest in this born-again spirit. Buffalo Trace Distillery has grown its audience by enticing imbibers with a massive portfolio of single-barrel, well-aged and wheated whiskeys, plus an annual Antique Collection of limited releases and experimental bourbons.

Yet the company’s master distiller, Harlen Wheatley, is hard-pressed to take credit for the bourbon boon, rather citing the craft cocktail resurgence for jump-starting the revival. “Bartenders were using it for mixing,” he noted, “and then people started drinking it neat and exploring bourbon as a liquor.”

Local bartenders attest to using more bourbon than ever. “We go through one case of Four Roses Yellow Label a week,” said T.J. Vytlacil, co-owner of downtown bar/restaurant Blood & Sand. “That’s a lot of bourbon.” The Scotch-based classic cocktail may be the namesake for Vytlacil’s members-only venue, but he estimates that between 35 and 40 percent of all cocktails prepared at Blood & Sand require reaching for a bottle of amber-hued bourbon. “It’s such a versatile spirit,” he mused. “It can add a boozy component or you can use it like rum because it’s a little bit sweeter.”

Bourbon-based cocktails – from classics like a Manhattan to original creations like Mr. Black – comprise nearly 30 percent of drink sales at Taste in the Central West End, a cocktail haven whose speakeasy style bespeaks the spirit’s first climb up the liquor ladder. Beverage director Ted Kilgore points back to the distillers for broadening bourbon’s appeal. “They are trying hard to make whiskeys that people who don’t like whiskey would like.”

It’s a trend that has expanded the bourbon market, with distillers experimenting with bourbon’s basic elements to both establish a new school of bourbon drinkers and keep bourbon adjunct professors happy. Adding more rye to a mash bill, for instance, results in more spice, a cherry-wood flavor and a dry character, qualities that resonate with bourbon cognoscenti who desire flavor and complexity. Wheat, meanwhile, offers a mellow roundness, while barley brings creaminess and grainy sweetness, both of which can be used to make a smoother, sweeter bourbon to appeal to recent converts.

Area bartenders are also trying to win over bourbon-lovers old and new. This is no more evident than behind the bar at Sanctuaria, where a cask of 12-year Elijah Craig Bourbon sits. Bar manager Matt Seiter traveled to Kentucky-based Heaven Hill Distillery to hand-select the variety, which was bottled exclusively for the restaurant.

The bourbon resurgence has even seen the birth of distilleries beyond the hollowed borders of Kentucky and Tennessee. Tuthilltown Spirits is making the first bourbon in New York state since Prohibition and, on the other side of the Great Divide, distilleries like Utah-based High West are creating an eclectic whiskey expression by blending bourbon and rye in a product known as Bourye.

This democracy of ours hasn’t had a king for more than two centuries, but beware: The House of Bourbon may soon reign this side of the lake.