by Dwain Hebda
1. Take a tour
One of the best ways to learn about something is to see how it’s made for yourself. Rock Town’s distillery tour has been ranked among the nation’s best and is a great way to learn the basics of whiskey.
“We take you through the whole process of making bourbon, from grain all the way to being in the bottle. We call that grain to glass,” Brandon says. “Then you get to taste several of our different bourbons to see what the differences are.”
2. Start slow
Brandon suggested rank beginners start with a bourbon cocktail before progressing to drinking it straight. Classic bourbon drinks include the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. It’s no surprise Rock Town mixologists make dandy versions of each.
“If you’re not used to drinking bourbon straight, then don’t,” he says. “Start out mixing it with Coke or Sprite or ginger ale and slowly reduce the amount of the mixer to develop your palate to where you can drink it on the rocks. After that, you can move to straight. There is no wrong way to drink it; it’s meant to be enjoyed however the person wants to enjoy it.”
3. Know your grain
Once you’ve graduated from the glass and want to buy a bottle of something, you need to consider grain flavor profiles. As we’ve said, bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, but what makes up the rest (generally rye or wheat) has a pronounced effect on the taste.
“Rye is going to be more bold, almost spicy,” Brandon says. “Wheat is going to be less spicy, less bold and more sweet; a little bit softer on the palate.”
4. Proof positive
Another thing to watch for is proof, which in practical terms hints as to the whiskey’s burn. Theoretically, the higher the proof, the hotter the juice. But in the hands of a skillful distiller, even very high proof whiskeys can still be smooth.
“Proof is double the percent alcohol,” Brandon says. “So if it’s 80 proof, it’s 40 percent alcohol. To be a bourbon, it has to be at least 80 proof and they go on up from there.”
5. Expensive doesn’t always mean better
You don’t have to look very far to find articles about the best bourbons on the market, up to the unicorns that are impossible to find and cost stupid money when (if) you do. And while there is ample evidence that you get what you pay for, there’s just as much to suggest that good bourbons reside at every price point.
“You don’t have to spend a lot; you can get a decent bourbon for $20, for sure,” Brandon says. “If you really want to try to get into it more, the internet’s an amazing treasure trove of information. There are numerous bourbon-focused websites now where you can go and learn about different brands, flavor profiles and tasting notes.”
Find Rock Town Distillery at 1201 Main Street in Little Rock or check them out at rocktowndistillery.com.