I am sick and tired of seeing shit like "Maple Bourbon". I was OK with Jim Beam carrying such a monstrosity, because Jim Beam is fine, it is serviceable in a pinch, and is good for Beam and Coke, but Beam and water isn't really that good because Jim Beam is only "fine". But when Knob Creek (which is a Jim Beam brand) also started selling a Smoked Maple version of their bourbon, and calling it bourbon, that was just too much. Knob Creek has always been a respectable small batch bourbon, and is pretty decent. But for Knob Creek to make a flavored bourbon is an abomination. And before you start, I don't care what it tastes like, it is a thing that should not be. To quote Jules Winnfield, "Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker." Allow me to explain.
I grew up in Kentucky, within short driving distance of all of the major bourbon distilleries that existed at the time - Makers Mark, Jim Beam, Early Times, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, etc. This was before the small batch explosion of the mid 1990s that saw Woodford and Knob Creek and the like hit the shelves, but those are all distilled in the same general area. My grandparents drank bourbon, and made bourbon balls during Christmas. So, perhaps it is natural that bourbon has always been my liquor of choice.
And before we go any further, I need to get something off my chest. No, bourbon does not need to be made in Kentucky to be considered bourbon. HOWEVER, as Chris Rock once said, "you could drive a car with your feet if you wanted to, but that doesn't make it a good fucking idea." That means that I will not be drinking some half-assed whisky made in Colorado or Ohio that someone has slapped a "bourbon" label upon. I suppose those pretend brands may make very good whisky, but I'll never know. In my humble opinion, real bourbon is, and only should be, made in Kentucky, and a specific part of Kentucky at that. Why you ask? Water. Plain and simple. Limestone filtered water. Ever good Kentucky bourbon has it, the pretenders don't (unless they ship it in of course). Besides, there are so many great Kentucky brands, why in the world would I ever go looking elsewhere?
So why am I so fired up about something like Knob Creek selling Smoked Maple Bourbon, you might ask? Because bourbon is special. It isn't vodka, in which the object is to distill the product so many times that the flavor of the ingredients is entirely gone, leaving only a neutral spirit. It is the exact opposite of that. It is flavorful, and aged for long periods in charred oak barrels to allow the spirit to leach the color and flavor out of the charred oak. Its flavor is complex, like a good wine or a craft-brewed beer. And it is perfect in all four forms - neat, on ice, with water, and mixed in cocktails (like the Old Fashioned, the Mint Julep, or check out GirlWonder's piece on what is maybe the perfect cocktail, the Manhattan).
But more than that. Like jazz music, it is uniquely American in origin. In fact, it is one of the few (if not only) spirits that is protected by law as a uniquely American product - by law, to be sold as a bourbon whisky, a product must be made in the United States. In fact, while plenty of countries manufacture garbage that they ignorantly refer to as bourbon whisky, none of that shit may be sold as bourbon in the United States by Act of Congress. Even Canada recognizes this - it is not legal in Canada to make and sell a "bourbon" made in Canada or anywhere other than the USA. The minimum requirements for a whisky to be called bourbon are mandated by the Code of Federal Regulations (27 C.F.R. sec. 5.22(b)(2)) and require a whisky "produced at not exceeding 160 proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125 proof in charred new oak containers". Traditionally, in Kentucky, the mix is about 70% corn and the rest a mixture of barley, wheat and rye. A recipe that goes heavier on the rye will be spicier (ex. Four Roses, my personal favorite), while a recipe heavy on wheat will be sweeter and smooth (ex. Makers Mark, also my personal favorite).
And all you bartenders out there, Jack Daniels is not a fucking bourbon. It is sour mash Tennessee whisky. Not the same thing. I cannot tell you the number of "reputable" bars where I've had this conversation: Me - "What bourbons do you pour?" Bartender -"We have Jack Daniels." Me - "Never mind, you obviously are not to be trusted to make my drink."
Then there is the recent fascination with bourbon, which is what I ultimately blame the entire flavored "bourbon" fiasco upon, and is ultimately the point of this post. Bourbon, when done well, it perfect the way it is. Vodkas and all those Canadian whiskys are perfectly free to add flavoring to their nonsense (I'm looking at you Crown Royal) because frankly, they need it. But good bourbon doesn't need added flavors because "bourbon" is a flavor all to its own. They even make artificial "bourbon" flavoring concentrate for baking (why I do not know, the real stuff works so much better) - I've never seen anyone do that with Canadian Club (although I suppose they could, if someone wanted to make cupcakes that taste like rubbing alcohol and induce vomiting).
My point, ultimately, is this: if you add flavoring to bourbon, you not only fundamentally change it from a "bourbon" to something else, but you also cheapen your brand (ahem, pay attention Knob Creek) and bourbon in general. Why do people treat Bud Light like it isn't real beer (other than because it is not actually beer, but rather bottled wino urine with residual alcohol content)? Because you have ridiculous shit like Bud Light Lime Straw-ber-rita (notice they're too ashamed to even call it beer, but rather "ber").
Why should anyone take Bud Light seriously if Bud Light doesn't even take itself seriously? This is what bourbon distillers are in danger of doing with all this flavoring nonsense. When you add flavoring to your bourbon, you tell the whole world that your bourbon needs something, and thereby not only cheapen your brand, but also bourbon as a whole because you are subconsciously telling everyone that bourbon flavor is not good enough by itself. If you insist on adding fucked up flavors to your product, at least have the decency not to call it "bourbon." Fireball is a great example. Very popular, and actually quite tasty if you want to drink cinnamon candy, but they have enough shame not to call it bourbon. It is a flavored whisky, and that is all any of these things ever should be.
In conclusion, bourbon is sophisticated, delicious and is officially recognized by an Act of Congress as a distinctive product of the United States of America - STOP FUCKING WITH IT DAMMIT! Let it be perfect all by itself.
That is all. Please resume your regular duties.