Bourbon is one of the most varied classes of spirits as far as expressing the nuances and techniques employed by the distiller. Proof, cooperage, barrel rotation- even terroir is expressed in the final product. I would like to share my own personal brand selection approach for cocktails in the developmental process.
To begin, I feel exceptional bourbons should only be enjoyed alone- especially if they are on limited distribution due to popularity spikes. To me, the Pappy 20 gets lost and underappreciated, even in a Manhattan.
Recently, I have begun offering these spirits with a tasting plate of accompaniments reminiscent of a cheese plate. The bourbon is unadulterated, yet the guest can nibble on sugar-cured vanilla pod, pomegranate pickled lotus rootlet, or enjoy the palate-changing influence of tobacco vapors.
Analyzing flavor profiles, for me, is a question of expressed and restricted characteristics. I try to identify sweet, bitter, herbal, spice unami and so forth. I don’t pay great attention to specific flavors like vanilla or caramel, as I feel no two people experience these alike. I rank each as prevalent, balanced or restricted. For example, a bourbon prevalent with spice and bitter generally isn’t very successful in a creamed dessert drink.
Proof is important for a few reasons: 1) higher proofs balance sugars better 2) flavor emergence is affected in different ways. For instance, bitter elements and high proof will create a drink that is aggressive on the front-end, generally not a desired trait. Yet high proof and sugar tends to express itself on the finish, leaving a warm, yet clean finish to a sweet drink. 3) Some drinks should be made to be easy drinking, warranting lower alcohol prevalence. A great example is the punch to be pre-batched and served at a backyard BBQ in summertime. Although the bourbon enthusiasts would enjoy the alcohol prevalence, many others would not. 4) Proof also plays an important role in how the bourbon will interact with other ingredients like ice, fruit purees, ice cream, etc…
Cost to Quality: As a commodity, bourbon prices are sensitive to supply and demand pressures. By all means, if you have a spirit you strongly feel is the best for the job, use it. Yet I feel that often terrific spirits can be found on lower shelves with a bit of research and consideration. More often than not, these are newly released, lack marketing acumen or the distillers aren’t yet prepared to handle the volume that comes with the growth created by rapid brand expansion. Conversely, some brands have become overbought due to market pressures created by their own successes. By searching out value brands, you can not only save money, but also find new and exciting bourbons to share with others.
Balance vs. Expressed: I contemplate whether I am trying to make a balanced, homogenous drink that is easy drinking and crowd pleasing or if I am trying to design a drink that is designed for sipping- aggressive in flavors and appealing to cocktail enthusiasts. The first is food-friendly while the second is taken before or after the meal. By first identifying the target audience, the development process takes a lot less time and money, minimizing many disappointments along the way.
Emergence of Flavor: It is important to determine when various flavors become apparent in the tasting process, in both the bourbon and the rest of the cocktail. Evaluate them as a sommelier would wine- nose, front, mid, back-palate and finish. With some experience, you will develop a style that reflects your aesthetic. For instance, bourbons in which the bitter and spice notes emerge on the front-palate I feel become acrid in a whiskey sour as the sour notes of lemon emerge mid-palate (right behind them.) Yet, I think they are idea for and old fashioned, as the sweet notes of orange and cherry emerge at the back-palate and balance well.
Modern mixology is growing at an exponential rate. Bourbon holds a special place in this mega-trend because of the diverse, yet consistent quality produced by today’s bourbon industry. By developing a philosophy that utilizes brand characteristics, anyone can bring depth, variety and flare to their cocktails. I would finally like to encourage you not to take my words as dogma, but as inspiration. Cocktails, like cuisine, are at their finest when they express the creativity of the artisan. Feel free to contact me with any feedback.