Of all the Pygmalion makeovers going on in spirits - think of once-lowly vodka, rum and tequila - none is more surprising than that of bourbon.
Perhaps you first heard about the American whiskey as I did, watching TV Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Usually, the stuff was served in shot glasses by gruff saloon men, sometimes administered as a stiff bracer - or topical disinfectant - to wounded cowboys. Scotch was something you sipped by the "dram" or mixed with club soda; bourbon was something you "belted."
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A glance at the liquor-store shelves today tells a different tale. Bourbon has shed its chaps in favour of a tux. That's the implication in some of the prices, at least. New brands costing $30 to $50 have joined the under-$30 crowd that includes classics Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. While the phenomenon started roughly two decades ago down south, with brands such as Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, the bourbon bonanza began in earnest in Canada only recently.
Nationwide, volume shipments of American whiskey (Americans, like their Irish counterparts, spell their spirit with an e) nearly doubled - to 264,521 nine-litre cases last year from 145,004 10 years ago, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers/Spirits Canada. Minor caveat: That number includes Jack Daniel's, which is not a bourbon.
And it's the premium category that is leading the growth. In Ontario, sales in the deluxe category -which includes 750-millilitre bottles costing $28 and up - grew by 18 per cent in dollar terms during the past 12 months over the previous year, a pace that began to accelerate last August, according to Greg Tranah, who manages the brown spirits category for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
January, which is normally slow, marked the highest sales month on record for deluxe American whiskey. "People are gravitating toward this category more than ever," Mr. Tranah said.
Growing selection has helped boost the category. So has image. Producers often label their superpremium bourbons with terms such as "small batch," "reserve" and "distiller's select" - appealing to a new connoisseur class looking for more dram than belt.
"For a lot of consumers there's this automatic acceptance," Mr. Tranah said. In British Columbia, Maker's Mark, which sells for $33.95, was up 28 per cent in the past 12 months, according to Adele Shaw, the spirits portfolio manager at the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch.
In that province, too, the selection was recently expanded with such fine brands as Basil Hayden's, Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare Single Barrel. Also just launched in British Columbia, and soon to be available in Ontario, is Maker's 46, a specialty variant of Maker's Mark matured for several extra months in barrels equipped with seared wooden staves, which impart a caramelized flavour.
The trend has been driven in large part by bartenders, who have encouraged liquor boards to source small-batch brands that until recently had been snapped up almost entirely by enthusiasts south of the border. Many have been mixing them into cocktails, including such classics as the old-fashioned as well as trendier concoctions.
Among the most bizarre is bacon-washed bourbon, a popular offering at Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in Toronto as well as a few other hip establishments around town. The spirit is infused with rendered bacon fat for a few days, then filtered, to leave an essence of pork. "It's bacony and smoky but you can still taste the bourbon," said Local managing owner Michael Sangregorio.
There is even a compelling new flavoured bourbon on the market, Red Stag by Jim Beam, infused with the flavour of black cherry.
Good bourbon can be deliciously complex and satisfying on its own, of course, though it's conspicuously unlike Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskies. Generally sweeter and fuller-bodied, it offers up nuances that range from fruity to peppery to caramel-like.
The sweetness comes from corn. All bourbons are distilled from at least 51 per cent corn. Some contain 100 per cent, but usually distillers add wheat, rye or malted barley, the base of Scotch. Rye tends to add a peppery dryness, which I like, while wheat can make it smoother and softer.
To be called bourbon, the whiskey must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Two years or more in those barrels qualifies for the designation "straight bourbon whiskey." I happen to like the rich mellowness of older bourbons, say six to 10 years. (Incidentally, Canadian whisky is a blend of grains, too, often with corn in the lead. But it need not be aged in new or charred-oak barrels, and tends to taste much lighter and smoother.)
Bourbon can come from anywhere in the United States, though most of it hails from Kentucky. Many people believe Jack Daniel's, the largest U.S. whiskey brand, is not called bourbon because it is from Tennessee. Not true. While it's made like bourbon, it undergoes an added, disqualifying step - charcoal filtration.
While I prefer Scotch at room temperature, I've grown to love bourbon on ice, a preference I acquired from my bourbon connoisseur friend Wojtek who, like me, thinks it goes especially well with listening to old jazz records. Cold highlights the acidity and makes it taste crisper, balancing out the inherent sweetness like shimmering cymbals over a bass line. Cowboys might raise an eyebrow, but hey, I was born in the city.
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey
PRICE: $39.95 (all prices Ontario)
The aroma is big on fruit, then the flavours lean toward grain and flowers, with a suggestion of old church wood. Smooth. Good buy.
Jefferson's Very Small Batch
Fruity, with a dollop of vanilla, it hollows out in the mid-palate before returning with a satisfying, Woodford-like note of old church pew and tight astringency on the finish.
Jim Beam Black
An intriguing aroma of toffee, Irish soda bread and Swiss chard (seriously) gives way to flavours of wood and spice. Smooth and moderately sweet, it's a remarkable value.
Fruity on the nose, it delivers big vanilla, nuts and spice on the palate. Bottled at 50 per cent alcohol, it packs a mean gun. Too strong? Maybe just a little.
Vanilla, caramel and a subtle undercurrent of fruit are delivered in a nice balance, with a smooth texture and medium body. Discounted by $2.50 in Ontario by $2.50 to $35.45 till Feb. 27. Good value.
It exhibits a charred quality that's not as integrated into the corn as I'd like. But I admire the dry finish. For those who like their bourbon lean.
Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select
An icon of the new bourbon boom, it has a full, creamy body with nuances of vanilla and peppercorn. Tell me if you don't detect banana bread on the nose.
1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select
Glorious, with a high rye component for peppery spice, it shows great depth of flavour, hinting at apple pie and licorice. I love the velvety texture. Splendid. It will hit Ontario Vintages shelves Feb. 19.