In anticipation of the first ever Toronto Bourbon Week, a look at the variety of bourbons you can pick up locally.
Figuring out where your bourbon is from can be a tricky proposition. Part of bourbon’s appeal is the romantic notion evoked by drinking an aged spirit, which is why every distillery seems to have a backstory about a rugged pioneer finding a magical spring of water and deciding to use it to make booze. The truth is a little more, well, corporate—there are almost five million barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky. Since good bourbon takes a long time to make, it functions as an economy of scale: more booze means more chances at a better product, so it’s no small wonder that most of the bourbon in the United States is produced by only nine distilleries.
While bourbon producers are required by American law to list the address where the whiskey was distilled, they often obscure the process by giving each whiskey a unique distillery name. This can lead to confusion: for example, Buffalo Trace, Ancient Age, Weller 12 Year, E.H. Taylor, and Blanton’s all claim to be produced at uniquely named distilleries, but are all made at the same distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. In recent years, a smattering of new craft distilleries have opened, in a fashion similar to the craft beer boom during the early nineties. However, as bourbon takes years to produce and longer to perfect, most of these distilleries do not have in-house product to put on the shelf (there are a few exceptions—the recently released Hudson Baby Bourbon, from Tuthilltown Distillery in New York—is the first example of craft bourbon available here in Ontario). Some micro-distilleries have turned to the larger distilleries as an early source of whiskey while their stocks age, to get their name on the shelves or for an influx of much-needed cash.
Here’s a rundown of the major distillers, and the bourbons each produces, which you can find on local LCBO shelves…
Bourbon, in short, must be made in the United States, is made of a mixture of grains (at least 51 per cent of which is corn), and must be aged in new oak barrels. Straight bourbon must be aged at least two years, and the age of the whiskey must be listed on the bottle if it is less than four years old. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, obviously, must be made in Kentucky. Other than the aforementioned Hudson Bourbon and various unaged “white dog” whiskeys, all the bourbon available in Ontario is straight bourbon, and almost all of it is Kentucky Straight bourbon.
Most bourbon that makes it to Ontario comes from one of 10 major distilleries, nine of which are located in Kentucky. The easiest way to figure out what distillery your bourbon is from is to look for the name of a town on the bottle. Barring that, it can take great familiarity with the various flavour profiles associated with each distillery, and a bit of guesswork, to figure out the origin of an oddly named bourbon.
Buffalo Trace, formerly the Ancient Age distillery, is located at the edge of Kentucky’s state capital. It is the oldest continuously running distillery, as it was allowed to operate during Prohibition. One of the smaller major distilleries (an odd distinction, as they still produce hundreds of thousands of bottles), Buffalo Trace is known for their variety and tendency to experiment. Home to Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley and legendary distiller Julian Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace’s bourbons range from value options like Ancient Age and Old Charter to high-end bottles like the much-hyped Pappy Van Winkle line, Blanton’s, George T. Stagg, and other rare and sought-after Antique Collection whiskies.
Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Ancient Age, Old Charter, Blanton’s, Colonel E.H. Taylor
Also known as the Tom Moore distillery, this smaller operation makes, appropriately enough, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve and the Barton line of whiskeys. The distillery’s flagship bourbon, Very Old Barton, is available almost exclusively in Kentucky and revered among critics, many of whom judge it the best value for the dollar among bourbons.
Ridgemont Reserve 1792
Brown-Forman are the owners of Jack Daniel’s, the most popular American whiskey, and the premium Woodford Reserve brand. However, while the two giants of their portfolio get all the press, their original distillery quietly puts out consistently high-quality whiskey. (Well, lots of high-quality whiskey and, also, Early Times.) Brown-Forman is located in the southwestern reaches of Louisville (Kentucky’s largest city), and lore says it was the first whiskey company to sell whiskey in glass bottles rather than straight from the barrel or in ceramic jugs.
Old Forester Signature 100 proof, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
Woodford is the smallest major distillery in Kentucky and arguably the most scenic. Located in the heart of Bluegrass country, it is surrounded by rolling hills and horse farms. Woodford is notable for being the only major distillery in Kentucky to use three large copper pot stills, as opposed to the more common column stills. The triple distillation and the use of pot stills can give Woodford a creamy mouthfeel quite unlike other bourbons.
Woodford Reserve, various annual experimental Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection releases
Four Roses is a venerable brand that had a long history of being created exclusively for foreign markets—it was not until Kirin bought the distillery in 2002 that the brand return to North American markets. Located down the street from Wild Turkey, Four Roses is known for their transparency in regards to grain recipes and the yeast they use—which helps make them popular among aficionados—and the relatively high rye content of most of their bourbons.
Four Roses Yellow Label, Four Roses Small Batch, Four Roses Single Barrel
Heaven Hill Bernheim
Despite being the second largest producer of Kentucky bourbon and owner of Evan Williams, the second-best-selling bourbon brand, Heaven Hill rarely has products available in Ontario. The company purchased the old Bernheim distillery in Louisville after a massive fire in 1996 destroyed its distillery in Bardstown—and over 90,000 gallons of whiskey. While Heaven Hill distills its bourbons near Louisville, it still bottles and stores most of its whiskey near Bardstown. Heaven Hill is known primarily for making whiskey with a great bang for the buck, as well as having an enormous number of brands, most of which are not obviously labelled Heaven Hill products.
Elijah Craig 12yr. Fighting Cock and Old Fitzgerald are occasionally available at bars (which can purchase them on consignment).
Beam is the biggest producer of Kentucky bourbon, and Jim Beam White Label is the best-selling brand of straight bourbon. In addition to the flagship bourbons, Beam makes a number of value brands, none of which have come to Ontario, and a line of premium brands that includes Knob Creek, Booker’s, and Baker’s. Most Beam whiskey uses a standard recipe of grains (called a mashbill), but the distillery does offer an alternate mashbill with a high rye content in the Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden whiskeys.
Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black 6yr, Devil’s Cut, Knob Creek, Knob Creek 9yr Single Barrel, Booker’s, Old Grand-Dad, Baker’s, Basil Hayden
Located a short drive south from Bardstown, Maker’s ubiquitous red wax seal is some of the cleverest marketing around, and for over a decade the company produced only a single expression of whiskey: the 45% alcohol flagship Maker’s Mark. In 2010, Maker’s introduced the “46” brand, a slightly higher alcohol expression aged with additional staves of French oak. Both of Maker’s Mark’s whiskeys use wheat as a flavouring grain, rather than rye; it is by far the most popular and readily available wheated bourbon. (Other wheated bourbons include the Weller line, Old Forester, and the Van Winkle line.) Maker’s rotates the barrels in their warehouses to ensure consistency, and is known for being smooth and accessible.
Maker’s Mark, Maker’s Mark 46
Due to its rambunctious name, Wild Turkey has an unfair reputation as a “tough guy” or harsh whiskey. While Wild Turkey 101, their flagship brand, is certainly higher in alcohol than comparable flagship bottles, it is no more harsh and no less complex. The premium barrel-proof Rare Breed is actually lower in proof than comparable products at other distilleries, and is full of great flavor and rye spice. In Ontario, we have to make do with only the 81 proof (40.5%) offering. Unfortunately, much like Heaven Hill’s products, we Ontarians do not get access to any of the whiskey that built the distillery’s strong reputation. In recent years, under the direction of Campari, Wild Turkey revamped their distillery to allow for greater production.
Wild Turkey 81 Proof
Midwest Grain Products Ingredients/Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana
This rarely-mentioned distiller does not bottle or sell its own product; instead it produces both new and aged spirits for other companies to sell under their own labels. They are one of the few sources of American rye whiskey, as at one point they had a large stock of 95% rye whiskey originally used as a component for Seagram’s in the United States. Since very few craft distilleries have their own aged whiskey, many (such as High West and Jefferson’s Rye) use whiskey made at LDI to present a product prematurely, while they are waiting for their own bourbons to be ready.
Currently none. High West Rye contains MGPI product.
Other bourbon distributors with products that have shown up in Ontario include Diageo, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, and Dave Sherman/Luxco. Diageo produces Bulleit, (originally made at Four Roses), and has bought and begun production at the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottle Corner Creek, Black Maple Hill, and several other whiskeys in what appear to be wine bottles, but receive most of their whiskey from the Bardstown distilleries. Luxco works mostly with Heaven Hill to put out its Ezra Brooks line of whiskies and Rebel Yell, their evocatively named wheated bourbon.
Also of note are the two major Tennessee whiskey distilleries—Jack Daniels and George Dickel—but, really, with Toronto Bourbon Week coming up, who really wants to talk about Tennessee?
Lucas Twyman originally hails from the great state of Kentucky; he is a whiskey and cocktail enthusiast, and head bartender at 3030 Dundas West. He also writes a blog about bourbon. Toronto Bourbon Week runs from September 27 to October 3.