In the 1840s, "Bourbon" was just a riverside county in Kentucky. Something set the place apart, though: the spirit it sent out of port. So distinct was this amber-hued hooch that downriver drinkers simply called it by the county's name, which was stamped on the side of each oak barrel.
Basically, bourbon is whiskey made in Kentucky. If it comes from anywhere else—say, Tennessee—it has to go by a different name. This is why Jack Daniels is not bourbon.
Bourbon distillers cook ground corn and rye in limestone water at high temperatures. Next, they add barley malt, which releases an enzyme that helps to convert grain sugars into alcohol. Adding yeast to the mash sparks fermentation.
After it ferments, the mash is distilled into a clear liquor, then aged in oak barrels. The barrels themselves, intentionally charred to varying degrees, give bourbon its character, color and smoky flavor.
Over the past 15 years, bourbon has seen a resurgence in popularity, in part because distillers have begun to offer a range of special bottlings. These usually fall into two categories: small-batch and single-barrel bourbons. Unlike -blended Scotch or other whiskeys, bourbon never features neutral liquors or outside agents, though garden varieties such as Jim Beam may contain liquor from more than 200 barrels in any given bottle.
Small-batch bourbons are "mingled" from 20 barrels or less and generally have more character and greater direction and focus in their flavors. Many have aged for at least six years.
"Single-barrel" comes from one barrel only, which requires great control and supervision but yields the purest expression of bourbon's characteristics. Single-barrel bourbons also tend to be the most expensive, and frequently have been aged for a decade or more.
Woodford Reserve ($30)
Nice balance of smoke, wood and a mild nuttiness, with a smooth, warm, sweet finish.
Elijah Craig ($20)
Layers of wood, smoke, pepper and juniper. Has a sharp attack that rolls across the tongue and mellows on the way down.
Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old ($32)
Very seductive and not overpowering. Lands powerfully mid-palate, then radiates slowly outward.
Heat hits straight to the back of the throat, then moves for ward. After the shock, a complex array of juniper, pepper, tropical flowers, wood and charcoal takes over for a finish that just doesn't quit.