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Be a Patriot, Drink American: Small-batch Bourbons for Your Budget

Take a bourbon flight of fancy with Monica Olive at Thirsty Crow (Andreanna Ditton/LAist)
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By Andreanna Ditton/Special to LAist

Bourbon: you keep hearing about it, reading about it, watching Don Draper slug it back like it’s the Four Loko of the 1960’s. But where to start? In this era of hand-crafted cocktails, and boutique distilleries, it’s no longer enough to buy the two-liter plastic bottle of Jim Beam from Rite Aid and make do. Directly influenced by the slow food and locavore movements, small batch booze has become an important part of the consumer experience. But hand-crafted often means an equally handsome price point, making the whole process intimidating and expensive. Fortunately, when it comes to bourbons, there’s a great one out there for every budget - both for at-home sipping and an evening out.

Bourbon is a uniquely American whiskey. It’s less peaty than its Scottish cousin, and richer and less distilled than its Irish equivalent. Bourbon mash must be made of 51% corn which is then distilled and aged in unused, charred oak barrels for 2 years or more. The end result is a big, bold taste that can enliven Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, or ring out beautifully when enjoyed on its own.

Nobody knows this better than the fine folks at the Thirsty Crow in Silver Lake, a bar built around the beauties of bourbon [LAist Story]. Manager Cooper Gillespie gave me a brief rundown on her favorite bourbons, among them the Papy Van Winkle 20 Year which she described as “good as bourbon gets”, and then sent me to school. Literally: the Sunday night whiskey education class headed by bartender and whiskey educator Monica Olive. She gave me the following tips once I had my glass in hand.

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First, breathe deeply through your nose and open mouth so as not to singe your sinus cavities. What do you sense: tobacco, caramel, nuts? Look at the “legs” on the glass, a result of viscosity from the combination of sugars and ingredients. Do they linger? Odds are, the bourbons you like will have similar viscosity. Follow this up with a swish, chew, breathe and swallow technique that opens up the flavor of the bourbon. Did it taste like you thought it would?

Always try a bourbon neat before adding anything. In certain cases, a little bit of water can further open the flavor, but it’s always better to gain the whole sensory experience first.

Trader Joe’s Rebel Yell is far less complex than many of the better bourbons out there, but it’s also smooth, warm and buttery. Plus it retails for about $10. I’m a big fan of Maker’s Mark (particularly on sale), but the smaller batch Buffalo Trace has a slightly more caramel flavor that I like. BevMo has it for around $20/bottle, and Silver Lake Wine stocks it, and many other interesting bourbons, including the rye heavy Bulleit, and the vanilla rich Woodford Reserve for around the same price. The Thirsty Crow features the Elmer T. Lee, the Eagle Run 10 Year Single Barrel, and the Elijah Craig in their Intro to Bourbon flight. All are mid-range bourbons with a rich flavor that won’t break the bank and are available locally.

So make a party of it. Ask your friends to bring over bottles to taste. Buy some of the cheaper stuff that everyone has heard of - your Wild Turkey, Evan Williams, Johnnie Walker, etc - and do your own comparison. Bourbons pair well with big flavors, so lay out some cheese, and fire up the grill. Reduce some bourbon in a pan with some shallots and butter for a sauce. Pour a dash over some berries for a boozy way to get your fruit. Or just match it with good chocolate to let the richness of both flavors swirl around and make each other (and you) more than happy. If it’s a good party, odds are your guests will leave their bottles behind!

Don’t be afraid to try something interesting, regardless of price. At the very worst, you get some sweet vermouth, bitters and a cherry and you’ve got a night of Manhattans. The Daily Pint and Silver Lake Wine often sponsor different tastings throughout the year if you want to expand your education, or drop by the Thirsty Crow on a Sunday. Monica will take good care of you.