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Tony Sachs

Tony Sachs


Forget About Horses: A Bourbon Picking Guide for Derby Day, and Every Day

Posted: 05/ 6/11 01:10 PM ET

The Kentucky Derby signifies three things to me. First, that Kentuckians and horse racing enthusiasts will soon commence another year of getting ready for an event that's over in about two minutes. Second, ladies wearing funny hats. And third, bourbon -- Kentucky's gift to the world.

I don't know much about horses or funny hats, but my liver and I do know a thing or two about bourbon. For those who don't know or who never thought to ask, here's a quick primer.

Bourbon is a whiskey that's distilled primarily from corn -- to be called bourbon, it must use at least 51% corn in its mash. The un-aged corn whiskey is made using methods that you don't really need to read about here (if you're curious, go here for all the details). It then has to be aged in white oak barrels for at least two years. Almost all bourbons are made in Kentucky, but contrary to what some may think, there's no legal requirement that it be made there. It just kind of worked out that way. The finished product, if made right, is proof -- along with baseball, jazz and Kathy Kohner -- that America is the greatest country on the planet.

There are hundreds of bourbons out there, each with a distinctive flavor profile, so what follows is by no means a comprehensive list of all your options. If it were, I'd probably be writing this from a hospital bed. Rather, it's merely a sampler of bourbons that have made it onto my radar, and why (or whether) they're worth trying. If you have any favorites that I've missed, don't be shy. That's what the "Participate" button above is for -- if you want to add your pick to the slideshow.

Four Roses
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The most popular bourbons in America have been, for what seems like forever, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. But for two decades after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, when you said "bourbon," odds are you meant Four Roses. The brand was purchased by Seagram's in the '40s, and in the '50s they stopped selling it in the USA. But it remained among the top sellers in Japan and elsewhere, and in the 21st century it's re-emerged Stateside. To woo high-end bourbon connoisseurs, they've developed a lot of newfangled variations (Single Barrel, Small Batch, etc.). But the standard Four Roses Yellow label is the closest thing to what your gran'pappy might have drunk decades ago. Sipped neat, it's got lovely vanilla and honey notes; drop in an ice cube or two and woody, oaky flavors begin to predominate. It's neither overpowering nor too delicate, which makes it nice for sipping or for mixing in cocktails.
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As the late great comedian Joe E. Lewis would say -- not to mention the track announcer at Churchill Downs -- "It is now post time." It's time to get in the saddle and watch one of Kentucky's great traditions... while drinking another.


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