Every bourbon is a whiskey but not every whiskey is bourbon.
I was reminded of this paradox when speaking to Stephen Gould, founder and distiller of the multiple award-winning Golden Moon Distillery. I thought bourbon was just bourbon, but Stephen explains that it is a family of spirits where each batch is as unique as its origin. Much like wine, bourbon is influenced by everything from its terroir to your table.
Bourbon has always been a tightly regulated industry in the United States. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau stipulates that any product labelled bourbon must have a mash bill that contains at least 51% corn and can only be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Corn is an indigenous crop in the United States and gives bourbon its characteristic sweetness which yields to reveal more complex flavours.
The mash bill may also include a combination of wheat, rye, and/or barley. Wheat typically develops into subtler flavours of vanilla, toffee, caramel, and honey, while rye adds a spicier complexity reminiscent of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Barley adds chocolate, malt, nuttiness, earthiness. The oak barrels, and the degree to which they are charred, add a further dimension in flavour.
The flavour profiles of bourbon naturally pair well with different foods either as an ingredient in the cooking process or as a beverage. Stephen is also a trained sommelier and saucier- he might be slightly biased towards bourbon but he is perfectly qualified to suggest appropriate food pairings.
Stephen says that the rules are simple: drink what you enjoy although lighter bourbons pair best with lighter foods while more robust bourbons pair best with stronger flavours. Although bourbon is intrinsically American, it is surprisingly cosmopolitan as it pairs well with Japanese sushi, Norweigan salmon, and Knysna oysters. You can even get creative by pairing an effervescent cocktail with botanical flavours to match your dishes.
Bourbon and red meat is a classic pairing, but bourbon also pairs well with rich tomato-based sauces and cream-based sauces. You might want a lighter bourbon with delicate chicken and seafood dishes but don’t be afraid to go all the way with a full-bodied bourbon for richer dishes.
I challenged Stephen to recommend dessert pairings; excluding chocolate because it is an instant choice, so he recommended the classics: ice cream and bourbon, apple pie and bourbon, fruit gateaux and bourbon, bananas Foster and bourbon. The smokiness of bourbon pairs well with nuts and pastries. Let’s not forget the classic South African Don Pedro which can be whizzed up with bourbon.
Bourbon is more than an accompaniment to any meal, it can also be incorporated into your meal through marinades, rubs, sauces, reductions, dips, and flambe. If you want to incorporate the mellow smokiness of bourbon into any dish, just add a dash of bourbon.
There is a multitude of choices in the bourbon market so Stephen suggests exploring them to find which ones appeal to your palate. However, he advises that you don’t judge a bourbon on your first sip. Bourbons are high proof spirits and can be a shock to the system. Stephen suggests taking a sip, letting it linger on your tongue and appreciating the flavours that follow. Have a second (or third) sip and notice how the bourbon mellows and allows more subtle flavours to come to the fore.
Want to add some water to open the flavours? Go for it!
Want to add your favourite mixer? There are no rules!
I expected Stephen to be a purist considering his enthusiasm for artisanal bourbon, I assumed that he would want people to appreciate his bourbon neat in an appropriate glass, but he’s surprisingly relaxed about how you enjoy drinking it, he says that bourbon is to be enjoyed, so enjoy it however it gives you the most pleasure.
I’ll drink to that!
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), as part of its “Cheers! Spirits from the U.S.A” campaign; has been introducing South African adult spirits consumers to the diverse range of American spirits, including Bourbons, for several years now. The local market is growing as South Africans discover the variety, quality and versatility of Bourbons available. Whether you sip it neat, on the rocks, with a simple mixer or at the heart of a cocktail, Bourbon delivers complex, satisfying flavours rich with history.