Published: December 11, 2013
Picking a bourbon isn't the 1-2-3 choice it used to be. There's been a boom in brands, especially from small, premium producers, not to mention a flood of new styles. Will you go for a barrel-aged version? Honey-flavored? How about a bourbon that's been aged at sea?
No doubt about it, bourbon is branching out.
"The biggest thing right now is people are looking to stand out," says Andrew Abrahamson, general manager of the Seven Grand Downtown LA whiskey bar. "Before it was all about brand loyalty. Now, the consumer base is looking for something new, something different and something really cutting edge."
By law, bourbon, a type of whiskey, must be produced in the U.S., made of a grain mix of at least 51 percent corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, made without additives save for water to reduce proof where necessary, and aged in new, charred white oak barrels. A minimum of two years aging is required to call the liquor "straight bourbon."
It's at the barrel level that a lot of the innovation is occurring.
Some of the extra touches producers are trying include selling single-barrel bourbons, made as the name suggests from a single barrel rather than being a blend of many. A popular way to enjoy this trend is to visit the distillery and pick out your own barrel.
Another trend, albeit smaller, is the practice of finishing standard bourbons in different types of barrels, such as Angel's Envy, which is finished in ruby port wine casks. Meanwhile, Maker's Mark has Maker's 46, which is aged in barrels containing seared French oak staves.
And Woodford Reserve has its Double Oaked bourbon, which is made as a standard bourbon, then put into a second barrel.
"Distillers are really pushing themselves," says Abrahamson.
And, like vodka, bourbon has been getting in on the flavor craze, with honey probably the most popular. But other flavors are available, too, such as the black cherry-infused bourbon from Red Stag by Jim Beam.
In 2012, nearly 17 million 9-liter cases of bourbon were sold in the U.S., generating more than $2.2 billion in revenue for distillers, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, with the strongest growth at the high end of the market.