Bourbon: One of the South's most consistent, and consistently sought-after, spirits

Matt Tocco mixes a cocktail called "Murder to Excellence” at The Patterson House in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.
Brad Japhe and Mackensy Lunsford

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

Ask just about anyone what spirit best embodies the South, and chances are they'll say "bourbon." Though the spirit technically belongs to the entirety of the U.S., the vast majority of it comes from Kentucky, which boasts a tradition of bourbon-making that stretches back centuries.

In 1783, Evan Williams opened the first commercial distillery in the Kentucky region, which wouldn't achieve statehood for nine more years. Today, more than 2.4 million barrels of bourbon are laid down in the state each year.

Bourbon, like any worthwhile whiskey, relies on high quality water. Much of Kentucky sits on massive limestone aquifers, which naturally filter and imbue beneficial minerals into the groundwater.

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A rising appreciation for domestic craft products and southern-made food and drink has helped drive a strong American thirst for bourbon. When The Patterson House, a Nashville craft cocktail bar with nearly 100 bottles of bourbon on the shelves, first opened in 2009, beverage director Matt Tocco said bourbon fervor was still at a simmer.

"It was still early on in the bourbon 'craze' if you will," he said. Now it's easily the bar's top-selling spirit. "It's been fun to watch how things have evolved in the city of Nashville and with cocktails in general."

A distinguishing factor in bourbon's flavor is the federal regulatory requirement that the spirit spend a minimum of two years aging in “charred new oak” containers.

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Matt Tocco mixes a cocktail called "Murder to Excellence” at The Patterson House in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

What pours out of the barrel is a style all its own: an auburn-hued liquid that sings

soulfully to the Southern palate. Caramel corn, candied apple, roasted pecan and tobacco leaf are all common tasting notes. It’s no surprise then that proper bourbon sits effortlessly alongside the classic cuisine of the South. 

And as any bartender will tell you, bourbon works wonders in cocktail form, anchoring a

drink with sturdy, sweet, complexity. When it’s fixed just right, served in its native

tongue, you’ll even taste a touch of twang.

Now it's part of the southern experience tourists seek out when they visit Nashville, along with hot chicken and a quick spin through a honky-tonk.

Whiskey bottles sit at Le Loup in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

"To the point where we put bourbon in our Old-Fashioneds even though we like it a little more with rye ourselves, but we know what the customer wants," Tocco said. "Without them, we're nothing but a good idea."

But it also means Tocco selects bourbons with high rye content for the menu at The Patterson House. His go-to is Old Forester Signature, a complex and rich Kentucky bourbon with a warm spice profile and herbaceous notes that pair well with the sweetness a barrel-aged corn-forward spirit brings.

Tocco is also enamored of the bourbon coming out of an unlikely place: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga Whiskey 91 Proof Straight Bourbon Whiskey meets all of the parameters of bourbon-making, though malted rye and barley make up 25% of the mash bill, yielding a malty-rich spirit with fruity complexity. 


The entrance to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience features a large bourbon glass waterfall.

"Which isn't usually happening," Tocco said. Bourbon, he added, is one of the most regulated liquors besides cognac. That makes it a consistent product but doesn't allow for much innovation. 

Though Kentucky remains the undisputed bourbon king, producing an astounding 95% of the world's supply, small innovative distilleries like Chattanooga are on the rise. "It will be interesting to see how the industry evolves because it is evolving all the time," Tocco said. 

Matt Tocco mixes a cocktail called "Murder to Excellence” at The Patterson House in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Murder to Excellence cocktail recipe

Bartenders at The Patterson House tend to craft drinks that let the spirit shine, rather than load the glass with bells and whistles. The Murder to Excellence is a prime example of how just a few ingredients can come together in perfect harmony. Lustau East India Sherry lends this drink Tocco likened to a "nutty Boulevardier" a unique and rich flavor. 

To finish this cocktail, Patterson House bartenders express an orange peel over the glass, which means to take a long strip of zest and twist it gently to squeeze out the oils. Typically, they discard the peel afterward, but you may leave it in the glass. 

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounce Old Forester Signature

3/4 ounce Lustau East India Sherry

3/4 ounce Campari

Instructions

Stir ingredients together with ice in a cocktail shaker and then strain into a coupe. 

Bourbon Peach Cooler recipe

The flavors of peach, iced tea and bourbon come together in a drink that begs to be sipped on the front porch as soon as the weather is warm enough to do so. This recipe, adapted from “The Bourbon Country Cookbook” by David Danielson and Tim Laird, is a fixture at Southern Kitchen

Ingredients

2 ounces peach nectar

1 ounce unsweetened iced tea

1 1/2 ounce bourbon

1/4 ounce peach schnapps

Dash of peach bitters 

Peach slice, for garnish

Instructions

In a shaker filled with ice, combine the peach nectar, iced tea, bourbon, schnapps and bitters. Shake the mixture vigorously and strain it into a tall glass filled with ice. Garnish with the peach slice and serve.