Bartending Tips: Be Conversant In Bourbon

By: Jim Hofman..

Back in the 1980's, not much bourbon was being sold in liquor stores or bars. Newer, more trendy drinks hit the scene and bourbon was relegated to dusty, unused shelves and dubbed an "old man's drink".
However, as often happens in the bar business, bourbon has made a vibrant comeback. Various specialty bourbon drinks are now on the lips of a new generation of drinkers, and once again appreciated by the older generation. In recognition of this trend, bourbon makers are offering a dizzying array of small batch bourbons to the public, and bar owners are stocking more of this uniquely American spirit than ever.
If you're a bartender, it pays to know a little about bourbon. Much like any other liquor, bourbons vary by taste from brand to brand. One particular characteristic of certain bourbons is a flavor very similar to vanilla. It may sound strange, but it's true. Being able to describe the nuances of bourbon will endear you to a very discriminating group of drinkers, many of whom will gladly become regulars and seek you out.
And while there are countless sources for information about bourbon, here's a quick "cheat sheet" and some talking points about five of the most popular bourbons. In no particular order, here they are:
Makers Mark: Very likely to be the first bourbon requested by name, Makers Mark has a distinctive amber hued color. Perfect for a julep or on the rocks, this bourbon has a complex taste of lighter spices and a bit of smokiness.
Old Grand Dad: A vibrant, lively bourbon that packs a punch. Definitely warms the throat. Less of a sipper and more of a bourbon and a chaser drink. A good introduction to bourbon.
Wild Turkey: Wild Turkey is frequently served in shots and unfortunately, gulped down. This bourbon deserves better. It's a smooth taste with dried fruit and spicy characteristics. Serve it to your customers straight up and encourage them to enjoy the aroma.
Jim Beam: The 8 year old Jim Beam Black is perfect for a mint julep or any mixed drink calling for bourbon. It's very smooth and well balanced, with no one characteristic overwhelming another.
Elijah Craig: This, to me, is one of the best bourbons available. There's a distinct vanilla taste here, along with a little bit that lets you know you're drinking bourbon. Best served on the rocks and not mixed with anything.
A quick note about Jack Daniels. As great as it is, it's not a bourbon! To qualify as a bourbon, the grain used in the mash must be at least 51% corn. Jack Daniels is a sour mash Tennessee whiskey, so don't use it to make a mint julep. This little tidbit of information alone is sure to get a nod of approval from the bourbon lover on the other side of the bar!

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