Bourbon: the American Cognac

Small batch and single barrel bourbons sip like cognac. Bourbon basics for the spirit newbie.

Our Bourbon selection keeps growing across the board and I am developing a deep respect for this noble American spirit.

Bourbon must be made in the United States, from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred American oak barrels. Beyond that the variables are the percentage of corn versus rye in the mash, source of water used and time in barrel is big. The proof at bottling is also important. Although more barrel age is generally better and always more expensive to produce, the master distillers will bottle at what they consider the ideal age and proof.

In the past I dismissed Bourbon as just too sweet, and I found in my limited experience, that they all tasted the same a bit syrupy with a harsh bite. As my tasting has broadened I find that the high-rye bourbons have a crisper, less syrupy sweet taste and that the profile of one Bourbon whiskey compared to another is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different.

To me they are very much like Cognac. Consider the Elijah Craig 18-year-old Bourbon one of the oldest (18 years in cask) single barrel Bourbons. If it is not the oldest it belongs to a very small club, because Bourbon usually comes from Kentucky which is warmer than the Cognac region; it ages much more quickly, so they don’t get much older than this. Now my comparison to Cognac. First the flavor profile, here are tasting notes from a reviewer of the Elijah Craig.

Elijah Craig 18-year-old – “A buttery vanilla nose with some winey notes, a hint of caramel, a medium body presents a dry, almost cognac-like palate with eucalyptus notes and some hints, in the backdrop, of deep rich caramel; the finish is crisp, dry, and lasts a lifetime…” by Gary and Mardee Haidin Regan, authors of The Bourbon Companion.

Compare to:
Hine Antique XO – “The nose is giving a touch of young wood but also vanilla aroma. In the month it shows depth with taste of dry fruit and a hint rancio. It’s comes across as very smooth with a nice long duration. This definitely one of the best in cognacs in the XO class.”

or good old Remy VSOP – “Hint of vanilla and dry fruit. In the month again taste of dry fruit (mainly fig) with a very nice and balanced finish. A rather impressive VSOP cognac.”

Notes are courtesy of CognacKnowledge.com.

Kelt Tour du Monde XO – "Delicate scents of flowers: narcissus, jasmine, honeysuckle with multifaceted touch of tawny port and walnut. Subtle wood notes: vanilla oak, cedar wood, cigar box. Candied fruits” – From “the fifty best” website.

Besides using the word Cognac in their descriptive notes for this fine Bourbon, the flavor profiles are very similar, rich carmelly vanilla notes in the base with various other aromas on top whether it be different fruit, spice notes, floral notes etc. Given the conceit of the “Cognacscenti” I doubt you’d see the word “Bourbon” in tasting notes for a Cognac.

The big differences are that Cognacs are usually reduced to 40% alcohol by volume while Bourbon’s abv runs from 40% to barrel strength which can be over 60% depending on the judgement of the bottler, similar to the practice with Scotch.  Generally sipped neat, much like a Cognac, the higher proof whiskey can be better with a touch of filtered water and I’ve even used ice on Booker’s (rocket fuel) Bourbon, which weighs in at better than 120 proof!  The  Elijah Craig comes in an 18 year old as well as a 20 year old version! Both are in very short supply. There are also great Bourbon of the month clubs which allow you to explore all these wonderful whiskies.

Rich Mora, Mora’s Fine Wine & Spirits

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