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I was recently informed by my friend Jordan–expert on all things Bourbon–that December 5 is National Prohibition Repeal Day. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, but it seems like the perfect time to talk about my favorite Bourbons, and I’m always looking for a good excuse to share some cocktail recipes.

Without writing an entire dissertation on Bourbon, I want to outline just a few basics about what makes something Bourbon. Under U.S. law, a distilled spirit cannot be labeled as “Bourbon” unless it meets the following criteria: it must be (1) produced in the U.S., (2) made from at least 51 percent corn, (3) aged in new, charred oak barrels*, (4) distilled to not more than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume), (5) put into the barrel for aging at not more than 125 proof, and (6) bottled at not less than 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume).

If you see an age on a Bourbon whiskey label, that means the youngest whiskey in that bottle is the age on the label. Bourbon is not required to be aged for any particular length of time, other than “straight Bourbon,” which must be aged for at least two years. If it’s aged for less than four years and is labeled “straight,” the label is required to contain the age.

Although Bourbon is affiliated with Kentucky, and the vast majority of Bourbon is made in Kentucky, it is not required to be made in Kentucky. All of my favorite Bourbons are Kentucky-made (but the Bulleit Rye I mention below is made in Indiana – thanks Jordan, for pointing that out!).

Also, here’s an interesting link to the Bourbon family tree. You can see just how interrelated all the brands and producers really are.

Woodford Reserve

Woodford copyWoodford Reserve holds a special place in my heart partially because I’ve toured their distillery, but mostly because my favorite law school professor and I used to sip it in his office while chatting about movies, books, and occasionally even the law. When I’m looking for a whiskey to drink neat (on its own, no ice), I turn to Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve is small-batch Bourbon, which is exactly what it sounds like. Each bottle has both a batch number and a bottle number. The entry-level Distiller’s Select is 90.4 proof, which means it contains 45.2 percent alcohol by volume (abbreviated as ABV). With notes of caramel, toffee, chocolate, and spice, it makes an ideal digestif (after-dinner drink). A standard 750-ml bottle is $27-30, which is a very respectable price for a quality Bourbon.

Buffalo Trace

BuffaloTrace copyMy favorite Bourbon for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned is Buffalo Trace, so-named because the distillery is located at a site that was on an ancient buffalo trail. It’s 90 proof (45 percent alcohol), and tastes of brown sugar, oak, toffee, anise, and spice. At $23-26 for a 750-ml bottle, it’s a few dollars cheaper than Woodford; therefore, I feel a little better about mixing it into a cocktail.


2 oz. Bourbon
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes bitters
1 Maraschino cherry

Pour whiskey, vermouth, and bitters over ice in a shaker. Shake. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Old Fashioned

1 t. simple syrup or 1 sugar cube
2 dashes bitters
1 Maraschino cherry
1 orange slice
2 oz. Bourbon
Seltzer water (optional)

Place the syrup, bitters, cherry, and orange in an old fashioned glass and muddle to a paste. Add large ice cubes and Bourbon. Stir well. Add seltzer if you want fizz.

Elijah Craig 12 Year

Elijah Craig copyI stayed at the legendary Seelbach Hilton when I was in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago. At the hotel bar, the Old Seelbach (which is on the Urban Bourbon Trail), I discovered a drink called The Horse’s Neck. It’s basically Bourbon, ginger ale (or ginger beer), and a long spiral of lemon peel. We like it so much, it was one of our signature cocktails at our wedding, despite the fact that Ian Fleming once referred to it as “the drunkard’s drink.”

My favorite Bourbon for a Horse’s Neck is Elijah Craig 12-year-old. It’s another small-batch Bourbon and is 94 proof (47 percent alcohol). Its price ranges from $22 to $26 for a standard 750-ml bottle, so it’s comparable to Buffalo Trace.

According to Bourbon lore, the Reverend Elijah Craig was either the “inventor” of Bourbon, or at least the first to store his Bourbon product in charred oak barrels, which give Bourbon its distinctive color and flavors. This is probably apocryphal, but makes for good marketing.

Horse’s Neck

2 oz. Bourbon
Ginger ale
Lemon peel spiral

Add Bourbon to a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with ginger ale and garnish with a long strip of lemon peel.

Evan Williams Black Label

Evan Williams copyThis is my go-to cooking Bourbon. Roasting a chicken? Pour some Evan Williams over it before putting it in the oven. Setting up the Crock-Pot for a day of cooking? Use half as much water as the recipe calls for and offset it with Evan Williams (or replace all the water with Bourbon if you’re feeling bold). Even their website has multiple recipes for meals to make with Evan Williams. This Pineapple Bourbon Pork Tenderloin sounds delicious.

Evan Williams (the man) opened Kentucky’s first commercial distillery in 1783. The Black Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon is 86 proof (43 percent alcohol) and has notes of oak, brown sugar, vanilla, and caramel. A regular 750-ml bottle will set you back a mere $10-13, while you can buy a handle (1.75 liters) for only $15-18. Jordan agrees that it’s the best quality Bourbon in its price range.

Bulleit Rye

Bulleit Rye copyOkay, rye whiskey is not technically Bourbon because it’s made from rye, not corn (see those legal requirements above). But Bulleit makes a Bourbon and a rye whiskey, both of which are excellent. The Bourbon ranges from $16 to $20, while the rye is a few dollars more, varying from $20 to $24.

Bulleit Bourbon is 90 proof (45 percent alcohol) and is made from 68 percent corn, 28 percent rye, and 4 percent malted barley. It has notes of maple, oak, and nutmeg, with some toffee on the finish. The rye is also 90 proof but is made from 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley. It tastes of vanilla, honey, and spice and is less sweet than the Bourbon (corn produces a sweeter spirit).

Here’s a recipe for a cocktail I found on Pinterest and made over Thanksgiving with Bulleit Rye. (When I say “made,” I mean “provided the information to my husband to make for me”). In fact, I’m drinking one RIGHT NOW! The original recipe came from DomestiKatedLife. We’ve also made this cocktail with ginger beer in lieu of seltzer, and it was equally delicious.

Cranberry Bourbon Fizz

2 oz. Bourbon
.75 oz. grenadine
Seltzer water
Star anise

Mix Bourbon and grenadine over ice and stir to combine. Top the glass with seltzer water to taste. Garnish with cranberries and star anise.

Note: if you can find it, use real grenadine made from actual pomegranate juice, not Rose’s Grenadine Syrup, which is mostly high fructose corn syrup.

If you have a favorite Bourbon or Bourbon cocktail, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. And let’s all raise a glass on Friday to celebrate the end of the Worst. Experiment. Ever. – Prohibition!

*As an aside, the legal requirement to use new oak barrels benefits the Scotch whisky producers who purchase used Bourbon barrels from U.S. distillers. Used Bourbon barrels are significantly cheaper than used Sherry casks from Spain, the Scotch producers’ other option.