Why bourbon’s hot this summer

Matt Jones, Beam Suntory whiskey ambassador and bourbon specialist. Beam Suntory photo

Mark your calendars for June 14, National Bourbon Day. Not that we need a special day to enjoy the rich, sweet taste of this all-American whiskey, but hey, any excuse will do just fine.

In fact, some of us got a head start on things a couple weeks ago when the Cascade Room on Main Street hosted its inaugural Barbarian’s Feast.

It was an evening of meat—mountains of ribs, roast beef, sausage, Cornish hens, turkey wings and a whole spit-roasted pig from Gelderman’s Farms in Abbotsford—plus lashings of beer, bourbon and cocktails from the Cascade Room’s general manager, Justin Taylor, and his team of talented bartenders.

Beam Suntory whiskey ambassador and bourbon specialist Matt Jones was on hand from Toronto to lead guests through a tasting of bourbons from Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. It was a good reminder of just why we fell in love with the brown spirit in the first place.

“It’s unpretentious,” Jones says. “Our philosophy is, you enjoy it the way you want.”

But, you might be thinking, it’s summer. Dark spirits like bourbon are for winter, for cold days and rainy nights by the fire, not for hot sunny afternoons on the patio, right?

Wrong, Jones insists. In fact, he points out, bourbon is the key ingredient in a mint julep, which he describes as “the quintessential summer drink.”

Adds Taylor: “There may not be a better spirit to pair with summertime barbecue. Smoky meats, grilled veggies and bourbon—amazing! And who could resist a bourbon cocktail with fresh peaches?”

Bourbon, for the uninitiated, is a barrel-aged spirit that must be made in the United States (mostly in Kentucky), has to contain at least 51 per cent corn and needs to be aged in new charred-oak barrels. No additives are allowed; it’s the oak that lends most of the flavour, those distinctive vanilla, cherry and caramel notes.

Bourbon has been distilled since at least the 18th century and has been called bourbon since the 1820s. As a consequence of the Wild West melée of early American distilling, bourbon is the most tightly regulated spirit in the world — unlike, say, Canadian whisky, which only needs to be mashed, distilled and aged for three years.

Bourbon is also a “whiskey” not a “whisky.” As Jones puts it, “To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’, that is the question.”

But there’s a simple answer: Whiskies that evolved from the Scottish tradition, like Canadian whisky, don’t have an “e”; whiskeys that descended from the Irish, like bourbon, do.

In Canada, we love bourbon, even more than we love our homegrown rye.

“Bourbon is still driving brown spirits in Canada, though Canadian whisky is finally getting its day,” Jones says.

One of our favourites is the Jim Beam Black Kentucky Bourbon, which is not only supremely affordable ($26.29 at BC Liquor Stores), but was also named the world’s highest rated bourbon of 2016 by the International Wine and Spirits Competition.

But there are plenty of interesting craft bourbons as well, including Maker’s Mark, which Jones describes as “the original small-batch bourbon, the smallest of the big guys.”

Whatever bourbon you choose, it’s easy to enjoy in a summery cocktail.

It mixes well with quintessentially summery flavours such as strawberry, watermelon, citrus, peach and ginger. Try a Kentucky mule (bourbon, lime juice and ginger ale).

“It tricks you into feeling refreshed,” Jones says.

It’s delicious in a julep piled with crushed ice; in a classic sour shaken with egg white; or in a highball, one part bourbon stirred with three parts soda and garnished with a slice of lemon.

“The highball is so underrated,” Jones says. “When in doubt, a highball for sure.”

He thinks a moment, then adds, “The honest, best way to enjoy bourbon in the summer is just on the rocks.”

Taylor promises he’ll hold another Barbarian’s Feast next year. In the meantime, enjoy your bourbon juleps, sours and highballs all summer long. I know I will.

—by Joanne Sasvari

Make Justin Taylor’s Suffering Barbarian.

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