Lynam Up: bourbon on the rise

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 12:58pm

For most whisky drinkers in Hong Kong, scotch dominates.

There's some interest in the Japanese variety, and Irish whiskey will always have a place but when it comes to bourbon, even specialist bars barely acknowledge the American version.

Bourbon rules are super strict. It has to be aged in a particular kind of wood
Dario Gentile, Bar manager

It's a similar story on the mainland, but according to Dario Gentile, bar manager of the new Jing An Shangri-La Hotel Shanghai's 1515 West Chophouse & Bar, bourbon is beginning to gain some traction in the city.

"Demand is growing," he says. "People want something different, and the something different is bourbon whiskey. It matches the taste profile of local customers, and more products are coming into China."

Gentile joined the hotel before it opened, with a brief to set up a serious bar, and decided to emphasise bourbon over scotch. He even commissioned a 10-year-old single-barrel variety from the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, as the house signature drink.

There has been talk in Hong Kong lately of a growing interest in aged rums and tequilas, so why not one of those rather than yet another whisky?

Gentile argued that bourbon has better regulated provenance, and more relevance to a greater number of popular cocktails - many of which are bourbon-based classics.

"Bourbon rules are super strict. It has to be aged in a particular kind of wood, and it is unique to the US. Classic cocktails, are back in vogue and bourbon is essential for those. People want mint juleps, old fashioneds, whiskey sours and manhattans," he says.

"Super strict" perhaps gives the bourbon rules more credit than they deserve. Under American law, bourbon must be made from a "mash" of grains, of which at least 51 per cent must be corn. It must be bottled at a minimum alcohol by volume strength of 40 per cent, and have no artificial colouring.

It can only be matured in charred new oak barrels - and those barrels can be used only once. The Scots then buy them and lay down their own whisky in them. There is no minimum barrel ageing period for bourbon, unlike that for scotch, which is at least three years. Bourbon can be bottled at three months, although the better stuff obviously isn't.

So what is the good stuff? Contrary to popular belief, although all bourbon is American whiskey, not all American whiskey is bourbon.

Many people believe that Jack Daniels - America's best-selling brand - is bourbon, but the Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns it, insists it isn't, and calls it "Tennessee whiskey".

Jim Beam, the other brand commonly available in Hong Kong bars, is a bourbon, but hard to get excited about.

No one calls these "big batch" whiskeys, but they are produced on an industrial scale. "Small batch" on the other hand is the term generally used to suggest artisan production methods and higher standards of quality. But many of the small batch bourbons are actually produced by the big distillers.

Beam Inc, which owns Jim Beam, also makes or owns the bourbon connoisseur's favourites Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Booker's and Basil Hayden's.

These are all on the list at Angel's Share in Hollywood Road, alongside premium bourbons Elijah Craig and Evan Williams, which are both owned by the substantial Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc, whose distillery Gentile visited.

Brown-Forman owns Woodford Reserve, and another large distiller, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, owns Michter's. That takes care of most of the brands readily available in Hong Kong.

For small batch artisan whiskeys from genuinely small producers, it's necessary to go to the US, or strike lucky at a bar such as Fatty Crab when a friend has hand carried a rare bottle or two in. The distillers don't make enough of the stuff for them to be particularly interested in export markets.

Bourbon doesn't seem to be any sort of substitute for single malt scotch, but I recently had a chat about it with Scot and tireless scotch whisky advocate Ron Taylor.

He has been getting to grips with bourbon recently, and says he has found a few he likes. Without suggesting that they offer the depth or complexity of a good malt, Taylor thinks there is more to some of them than they are given credit for.

One problem, he thinks, is that people tend to add too much ice and/or water.

Try just a few drops in one of the "small batch" spirits, as you might with a malt, and you could be in for an agreeable surprise.