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Mixing mint julep

Ramona King

Mixing mint juleps


Southern Kitchen's complete guide to sipping, sniffing and shopping for bourbon

We're just over a week away from what just may be the biggest bourbon holiday of the year — the Kentucky Derby. Rather than heading into the event unprepared, pull out your julep cups and snifter glasses and get yourself educated on America's original, and most beloved, Southern spirit. 

Our Southern Kitchen guide to bourbon has got you covered, from a history lesson and a shopping guide to recipes aplenty. Time to get sipping!

What is bourbon, anyway?
Bourbon is an American whiskey primarily made from corn. Legally, its mash (a.k.a. the mixture that is fermented and distilled) must contain at least 51 percent of that grain, but most bourbons are made using between 70 to 80 percent corn, plus a mixture of rye and/or wheat. In order to be called bourbon, the whiskey also needs to be aged in unused, charred oak containers; distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)); barreled at no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV); and bottled at at least 80 proof (40 percent ABV). Bourbon is often associated with Kentucky, but it does not have to be made there, or anywhere else in the South.
Bourbon is different from other whiskies/whiskys in many ways, but one of the most important of its characteristics is its aging vessel — a charred, unused oak barrel. Why is this important and what does the agin process do to the spirit itself? We've got the answers to all of your aging questions, right this way.
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How to shop for bourbon
Learn the eight different styles
Need a primer on just what that "Bottled-in-Bond" label means? Us, too. There are eight different styles of bourbon out there on liquor store shelves and in your grandparents' bar, and they'll all give you a different drinking experience. We've laid out all of those styles, plus given you a great suggestion for bottles of each type that you can bring home tonight. 
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Small batch bourbons
Ready to shop and got your eye on limited edition and other small batch bourbons? Our round-up of our favorites will help you suss out your Four Roses from your Thirteenth Colony.
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Bourbon on a budget
If you've got a tight budget but still want to explore all the bourbon the South has to offer, never fear. You don't have to sacrifice flavor for money. This budget-friendly bourbon list gives you both time-honored classics and crafty, local upstarts that will please the palate without breaking the bank.
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The most exclusive bourbons in the South
Say you have more money to spend. A lot more money to spend. Take a gander at some of the most revered bourbons in the South and truly treat yo'self. Just make sure you send along an invite to your favorite Southern Kitchen writers and editors.
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How to drink bourbon
Once you've got your bottle of choice, it's time to start drinking! Bourbon, and whiskey in general, can seem indimiating, but it is quite easy to taste and appreciate — just remember to serve it the way you like it.

If you're really looking to appreciate the subtle qualities of the bourbon itself, you'll want to first try it neat (a.k.a. on its own). Pour a tipple into a small glass and take a look at it. How dark is the color? Is it cloudy or clear? The darker the bourbon, the deeper its flavor, and mostly likely, the older its age. Cloudy bourbons typically haven't been chill-filtered; expect more complexity from these. Next, plop your nose in the glass and sniff. Take note of any aromas you pick up; is it smoky or sweet, spicy or soft? These are all predictors of flavor.

Finally, take a sip, but don't swallow right away. Move the bourbon around in your mouth (or "chew" on it, as they say in Kentucky) to make sure your palate fully experiences the flavor. Do you like it? What flavors do you taste? Vanilla? Coconut? Caramel? Once you've gotten a good taste, go ahead and swallow. Take final note of the finish — can you still taste those flavors? Is your throat just burning? These sensations are all part of the bourbon experience.

If you can't taste any of the boubon's flavors because you're being blinded by a strong alcohol burn, add a few drops of water and swirl it around. Try it again. The water will dilute the whiskey just enough to let the flavors open up. Trust me on this one.

It is also entirely wonderful and acceptable to drink your favorite bourbons on ice, topped with soda, or even mixed with a little sugar and fresh citrus juice, such as lemon or grapefruit. Jack and lemonade is a great gateway drink for those who are unsure about drinking brown spirits. Or simply ask your friendly neighborhood bartender, as we did in a recent episode of our podcast, Sunday Supper. Watch the video below to learn more:

Our very best bourbon recipes
The first thing you'll likely want to do with your new bottles of bourbon is to make cocktails. Lucky for you, we've got you covered in spades. Here are Southern Kitchen's favorites:
Bourbon-Mint Strong Palmer
High Noon Old Fashioned
Bourbon Prosecco Spritzer
Comfortably Numb Cocktail
Frola Cocktail
Maple Bourbon Smash
Mint Julep
Old Chatham Artillery Punch
Southern Kitchen's Punch
The Old Fashioned

Of course, you can also bring bourbon to the dinner table, and not just in a rocks glass. These five recipes make great use of the spirit in savory cooking.
Virginia Willis' Bourbon Baked Ham
Apple-Bourbon Brined and Smoked Pork Chops
Bourbon Collard Greens
Derby Shrimp and Grits with Tasso Gravy
Southern Hot Cross Buns

Dessert and More
Or if you'd prefer to pair bourbon with sugar, butter and eggs, you can easily add it to many dessert recipes. Here are some of our best:
Bourbon-Chocolate Pots de Creme
Apple Clafoutis with Bourbon Caramel Sauce
Bourbon-Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies
Butterscotch Pudding
Chocolate and Nut Kentucky Pie
Kentucky Bourbon Balls
Macerated Stone Fruit with Bourbon Sabayon
Apple Cider-Bourbon Jelly

Want more stories and tips? 
Read the dramatic story of the bourbon-filled pie that has launched countless lawsuits
Learn some shortcuts to making bourbon-y desserts with help from one of our favorite Kentucky companies
Try 7 smoky and sweet dishes that will pair perfectly with your two-fingered glass of bourbon
Bourbon doesn't have to be from Kentucky — here's the story of a Texan bourbon that is making a bold debut

Photo (bourbon barrels): Chris Nelson/Flickr (license)
Photo (mint julep): Ramona King
Photo (ham): Virginia Willis
Photo (pie): Kate Williams

Author image

Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.