The recipe calls for you to add 1 tablespoon of dry sherry, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla, and 1/4 teaspoon of liquid smoke to 750 milliliters of budget bourbon. Shake thoroughly. Prepare to be amazed by the smoothness.
This bit of liquid alchemy from Kitchen Hacks calls for 3 ingredients, each of which mimic an aspect of the aging process: The liquid smoke adds earthiness; the vanilla provides vanillin (a flavor compound also found in bourbon barrels); and the sherry provides undertones to make the bourbon taste more aged.
"Would you like to test this?" my editor asked. Would I ever!
More: Another cheap way to transform your bourbon—and use up your food scraps in the process.
I entered the liquor store a bit giddy. The saleswoman was suspicious and stared at my I.D. for far longer than seemed necessary, but then she helped me pick out a 325-milliliter of "the good stuff," which had been aged for nine years. It put me back $19.99.
I didn't need any help buying a bottle of the bottom-shelf bourbon—I knew what I was doing. I chose a brand that I'd had before and thought was pretty smooth. (It didn't state the age on the bottle, but after a bit of sleuthing I found out it was approximately four years). A 750-milliliter bottle of cheap bourbon (one step up from the very-worst stuff; as a post-college adult, I cannot bring myself to purchase liquor in a plastic bottle—even I have my standards) cost $14.99. Both spirits were 50% A.B.V. After a bit of math, I realized that the nicer bourbon was roughly three times as expensive as the cheaper bourbon.
As soon as I got home, I set aside some of the cheap bourbon to use as a control and doctored up the rest: I poured the prescribed doses of dry sherry, vanilla extract, and liquid smoke into the bottle and gave it a firm shake. I then poured a fingerful of each (cheap, doctored cheap, and fancy) into my nicest glasses. Let the first taste test begin.
1. The Neat Bourbon Test
I like my bourbon like I wish I liked my closet: neat. This might just be because I don't have any of those fancy giant ice cubes that look like they were chipped off of glaciers. Regardless, for the first test, I served the bourbon in its purest, most unadulterated form.
Right off the bat, one thing became clear: No one preferred the control of the unmixed cheap bourbon. Everyone who tasted it immediately grimaced and said "not this one." Well, no surprises there.
The results were not as clear-cut for the other two bourbons. Of the 12 people who volunteered as my testers, 8 preferred the fancy-pants bourbon, while 4 preferred the cheaper bourbon that had been doctored. A few testers said that the fancier bourbon tasted "more like alcohol," and its flavors were more "nuanced" (yes, their pinkies were out when they said that). Those who preferred the cheaper bourbon said that it was "smoother" and "sweeter," probably due to the vanilla.
2. The Old Fashioned Test
A previous roommate had left some awesome cocktail mixers at my house, so I mixed the bourbon with one appropriately titled "Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned." If you're making yours from scratch, I recommend this classic formula.
The results of this test were quite similar to the neat bourbon test. The majority preferred the cocktail mixed with the expensive bourbon, but not an overwhelming majority—and most people ended up sipping both a few times, brows knit, before shrugging and saying they liked both. Me too, testers. Me too.
More: Before you mix up an Old Fashioned yourself, learn its history.
First, a tiny bit of background on bourbon. Bourbon is a part of the whiskey family (not whisky, which traditionally refers to whiskies made in Scotland and Canada). In order to be classified as bourbon, it must be made with at least 51% corn, though it typically also has rye or wheat and malt. Bourbon distinguishes itself from its whiskey brethren from the way it's aged—in white oak barrels that have been charred on the inside with a torch.
The aging process is important for two reasons:
- First, when distillers burn the inside of their barrels, they actually end up caramelizing the glucose in the wood. Now the inside of the burned wooden barrels is not coated in straight caramel, but still, the subtle sweetness transfers to the whisky as it ages.
- Second, aging filters the spirit. In the summer, the bourbon expands and pushes into the porous oak of the barrel. In the winter, it contracts back out of the wood. This seasonal migration filters out impurities from the bourbon and makes it smoother.
This sounds like an argument for why the whisky aged nine years would obviously be superior. However, according to BDCWire, most of the aging happens during the first two years. After that, the changes that happen inside the barrel are relatively minor.
So, is it worth the trouble to doctor up your cheap bourbon? I say definitely, especially if you're drinking it neat or on the rocks. If the bourbon is going into a cocktail, especially one with a palate-dominating mixer, you might want to skip the mixing step.
Until I have enough disposable income to drop a serious chunk of change at the liquor store, or suddenly develop an incredibly fine-tuned palate for whiskey, I'll be buying my budget bourbon brands—and giving them a little something-something in my own kitchen.
Bourbon, bourbon, we love thee. What's your favorite way to drink this golden liquor? Neat? On the rocks? In a Manhattan? Tell us in the comments!