The largest category is still Scotch whisky, but American bourbon and rye are giving the Scots a run for their money. Not too long ago, American distillers could hardly give their booze away. They were staring at rick-houses full of aging bourbon in barrels stacked to the ceilings and wondering what would become of it.
Then, the cocktail revolution started. All of a sudden American whiskey was cool again. Distillers responded with special bottlings of older stock, single barrels, or proprietary blends. Craft distillers and independent bottlers brought out limited edition bourbons. The boom was on.
Bourbon, by law, must be produced in the United States (traditionally in Kentucky), have at least 51% corn in the mash bill, and be aged in new barrels.
I’ve been privileged to taste a good many high-quality American whiskeys with unique flavor profiles, individual origin stories, and sometimes a good deal of marketing hype. They cover a fascinating range and any would make a welcome Christmas gift.
But what if, like me, you neither have space for dozens of bottles nor the desire to invest heavily in your bar stock? What if you want to experience the fascinating range of whiskeys but don’t want the overhead?
Then you should head to a restaurant with a good whiskey bar.
Newly opened in SoNo, Bourbon Raw is a great place to start. I counted roughly 120 bottles on their list, plus a dozen or more rye whiskeys, and a few more speciality items. A pretty comprehensive collection! On the back bar you can see well-known brands in all their variations as well as obscure bottles not often seen.
Three flights are offered for an introduction to tasting. I started out with the Styles of Bourbon – three one ounce pours ($12) sampling three basic approaches: Makers Mark for a wheated style; Four Roses single barrel for a high rye example; and Buffalo Trace for a traditional profile. More in-depth flights are available for high rye, low rye, and wheated bourbons. You can also create your own tasting, such as the Knob Creek lineup, including their straight bourbon, single barrel, 25th anniversary, and smoked maple bottlings.
My three tastes were all quite distinctive. The Makers Mark was rich with brown sugar accents with a warm and spicy finish. Four Roses was loaded with spicy rye and had a dark amber color. Lighter on spice and color, the Buffalo Trace lay between the two. I was surprised at how well the whiskeys paired with our dinner.
There are cocktails too, both classic and signature. Marsha’s Bulleit Bourbon Old Fashioned was warming and citrusy with the one large ice cube that’s favored by bartenders these days.
To pair with our whiskey we started with a warm goat cheese skillet ($11) with bourbon-marinated cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, ready to spread on warm pita bread along. Bourbon hash ($9) included mixed herb spaetzle, pulled pork, pickled onion, root vegetables, and smoky bourbon bbq in a hearty blend, all topped with a fried egg.
For a second round of small plates I opted for a wild mushroom flatbread ($10) generously finished with truffle-honey and a handful of baby arugula. Marsha’s autumn chop salad ($12) was a hearty, delicious, and original toss of butternut squash, apples, dried cranberries, radish, pumpkin seeds, Gorgonzola, and arugula with a citrus vinaigrette.
It was all remarkably original, very well prepared, and attractively presented.
Peaches Southern Pub is the place for a rewarding culinary dip further into bourbon country. Deeply flavored pulled pork tacos ($12) with Mama’s bourbon BBQ sauce or tender and meaty bourbon glazed chicken wings ($10) take you straight down south.
Perfectly cooked shrimp ($24) in a savory cajun-mirepoix pan gravy with spicy chorizo and slices of okra are piled high on creamy grits for a southern classic. Fried green tomatoes ($18) are stacked high with spinach, roasted red pepper ricotta, and confit tomato marinara. They call it a Napoleon, but it’s just plain good eats.
There’s no bourbon list, but there are at least three dozen bottles lining the top shelf of the back bar. Get a seat at the bar for the best view and quiz the bartender about what’s what.
At a table, choose from one of many bourbon-based cocktails on the menu. We can recommend the rosemary maple sour, or, for something more straightforward, the double barrel bourbon Manhattan. The bourbon is further wood-age in-house for an extra dose of oak and vanilla flavor.
Bourbon is taking its rightful place as a unique and world-class drink. A good bottle will make a welcome holiday gift for anyone interested in fine spirits, but I recommend a good bourbon bar to get to know the field.