Bourbon season

Col-head-ZalkinThe weather is growing cold and the leaves are falling, which means it’s the perfect time to add the warm, vanilla comfort of American bourbon to autumn cocktails.

The origins of bourbon are surrounded in myths of dubious authenticity, with a host of Southern heroes assigned credit for the creation and innovation of this smoky-sweet spirit. The name “bourbon” ultimately derives from the Bourbon kings of France (and the many American streets and counties named for them), but the drink is all American.

Bourbon is America’s most famous spirit and biggest liquor export. In 1964, Congress declared it a “distinctive product of the United States” and prohibited the import of any imposters laying claim to the name. Bourbon is a type of whiskey made with at least 51% corn, and while it can be made anywhere in the United States, Kentucky is its spiritual home. Roughly 95% is still made in Kentucky, though that is rapidly changing with the growing craft distillery movement.

Bourbon has a relatively high production cost. The mash must be carefully managed by an experienced distiller and is often blended with leftovers from a previous batch to act as a starter, similar to the making of sourdough bread. It then spends time aging in costly new oak barrels, which are charred or toasted, to bring out the sugars in the wood.

Temperature fluctuation is key during aging, as the wood will swell with heat and contract with cold, allowing the bourbon to penetrate and pick up more oak and vanilla flavor. The longer it is aged, the more gets lost to evaporation, and the more concentrated the flavor becomes. This lost liquor is nicknamed the “angel’s share” and is unavoidable when aging high-proof booze in a porous container.

The second loss comes with what’s left in the sodden barrels, trapped in the wood, which is known as “the devil’s cut.” These barrels are used only once for bourbon and then passed along to be used for everything from aging hot sauce or barbecue sauce to kindling for smoking meat to furniture. A great number of them travel across the Atlantic, where they are prized for the aging of Scotch whisky.

Bourbon is the classic basis for such cocktails as the old-fashioned or the mint julep, and makes for a sweet spin to any whisky drink. It has a distinctive burnt vanilla flavor that is sweeter and more ethereal than that of scotch, less spicy and vegetal than rye. It has a rich mouthfeel and a good bite and pairs beautifully with creamy holiday cocktails. It is wonderful to drink on its own or you can add a splash of water to open up delicate floral notes. But if the weather has you chilled, I recommend you throw a splash into some hot spiced cider. It’s the perfect way to warm up a frigid fall day.

Here are some recommendations:

• Widow Jane. A seven-year whiskey that drinks like it’s 20. Widow Jane has aromas of toffee, butter and cream, with overtones of burnt orange and festive spice. It is named for the water source at the Widow Jane mines in Rosdale, N.Y., and is 100% GMO-free. Distilled in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

• Smooth Ambler. A bourbon whiskey with a high rye content, its delicate smoothness belies its high proof. Sweetly spicy, with flavors of baked apple, cherries and tobacco. Made in West Virginia.

• Angels Envy. A cult favorite, aged for years in traditional white oak, then finished in port barrels, adding unique red-fruit flavors to this classic bourbon. Notes of orange and roasted nut round out this cocktail classic. Made in Kentucky.

• Ridgemont Reserve. A complex bourbon with flavors ranging from pineapple to bitter toffee to toast. Rich and round, with a heady perfume, this zesty example has overtones of honey, and a dry finish. Made in Kentucky.

You can find all of these delightful bourbons for purchase at our store, Old Greenwich Fine Wines & Cheese, located at 195 Sound Beach Avenue, Old Greenwich, or visit our website,, or call 203-990-3030 to place an order. When you stop in, we invite you to taste a number of our favorite wines while we help you find the right bottle for your palate.

Robert Zalkin is the owner of Old Greenwich Fine Wines at 195 Sound Beach Avenue. His column will be available weekly at

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