Cheat Sheet: Bourbon

Ask for a bottle of bourbon at Park Avenue Liquor Shop in Midtown Manhattan and you’ll be shown a wall of whiskey. The store carries more than five dozen different bottlings, and that’s not counting rye or Tennessee whiskey. How’s a drinker supposed to choose?

To help you make the decision easier, we enlisted Knob Creek’s whiskey professor Bernie Lubbers. In addition to knowing about liquor, he has another special talent: Tell him your bourbon of choice, and he’ll immediately rattle off your other favorites and which spirits you should try next. We got Lubbers to reveal the secret to his trick, which will make finding whiskies you’ll love that much easier.

From how long the spirit ages to the proof, there are a number of key factors that contribute to the flavor of bourbon. But today we’re focusing on the most basic: the three grains used to make the whiskey. While all bourbons must be at least 51 percent corn and usually contain some barley, the third grain can vary from brand to brand. Using that so-called “flavoring grain,” Lubbers divides the whole bourbon category into three main groups. “I try to find the common dominator,” he says.

There’s the “traditional bourbon recipe,” which calls for about 70 percent corn and then roughly equal amounts of rye and barley. Knob Creek, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams fall into this group. Then there’s the spicy “high-rye recipe,” which includes a higher percentage of, you guessed it, rye. Basil Hayden’s, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace all follow this formula. The last group is the “traditional wheat recipe,” which, according to Lubbers, has a “sweeter and softer” taste since it’s made from corn, barley and wheat. Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle and W.L. Weller are examples of this style.

While the bourbons in each group will taste different, there’s a good chance that if you like one you’ll like the rest. With Lubbers’ assistance we created a cheat sheet that breaks down the most popular brands into these three categories. Now it’s time to go back to the liquor store.

Traditional Bourbon Recipe:

High-Rye Recipe:

High-Wheat Recipe:

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