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Bourbon 101: The Beginner’s Guide

Here’s your local primer for nosing your way into all things bourbon

Article by Todd Haight

Photography by Winterlayne Photography

Originally published in Troy City Lifestyle

One thing I’ve noticed about bourbon. It’s one of those drinks that’s, well, more than just a drink. Talk to a true bourbon pro and you realize it’s an experience. A hobby, even.

So, interested in moving from novice to expert? Start by learning the difference between bourbon and whiskey.

“All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon,” says Kylash Sivakumar, Master Distiller for Shankar Distillers of Troy. “Bourbon is a type of whiskey.”

Bourbon is made from a mash containing at least 51 percent corn. Rye whiskey contains at least 51 percent rye, so the flavor difference is in the grain component.

There are countless fine points to the hobby, and Kylash knows them well, thanks to his chemical engineering background and role as master distiller with Shankar Distillers, which uses a blend of technology, quality and imagination to produce Varchas Whiskeys and Spirits.

“Varchasvi Shankar, our founder and president, is a whiskey enthusiast from the historic city of Mysore in South India,” says Raymond Drzala, director of marketing. “He founded and led his global software company for decades. Now, he’s pursuing his dream of making great-tasting, premium American whiskey and taking it around the world for people to experience.”

Starting here in Troy, of course, where they’ve created a powerful craft bourbon.

“We're considered craft or small-batch bourbon. Craft will have more flavor because of our mash bill; that’s the percentage of grains going in our recipe,” says Kylash. “Smaller batches may not taste the same from one batch to another, so you get little pops of flavor. Those flavor differences are what you want to experience.”

Know how to order and you'll edge closer to pro level. “Neat” is sipping straight bourbon; “on the rocks” is poured over ice. Or try a cocktail, like an Old Fashioned (mixed with sugar, bitters and water.)

Next, learn how to explore all your senses.

“If you’re not smelling it before you drink it, you’re missing the full aroma of the experience. Use your tongue and mouth to feel the different textures of the whiskey you’re drinking."

And how do you drink it? Well, that’s definitely a thing with bourbon.

Use an open-mouth glass to smell the aromas. That's called nosing. Some people put one nostril in at a time, picking out individual aromas. (That’s getting into heavy connoisseur levels.)

“If it’s the first sip of the day, you’ll get a lot of the alcohol flavor and it’ll burn your mouth. Don’t give up. Take another sip and swish it around in your mouth. You’ll pick up other characteristics of the blend. When you finish sipping, exhale. Use your breath and your nose when you exhale to enhance the characteristic of the bourbon.”

Pay attention to the "finish." Some brands will end quickly, others will be long-lasting. These are things to note when deciding what you like and don’t like.

Finally, combine it with the right foods. A steak and cigar, well, they go without mention. Dark chocolate pairs well with bourbon, as do dates, raisins and nuts. And don't forget the charcuterie board.

We invited some local entrepreneurs to sample the spirits at Shankar Distillers. The experience was powerful, they said.

"I like finding the nuances with the different mashes," says Chuck Vercellone, Wealth Strategies Group (wsgllc.net). "You get varying flavors from the mash bills, and I enjoy discovering the differences. I've been doing bourbon for three or four years now and I'm still a newbie."

Chirag Shah of FYZICAL Therapy and Balance Centers (fyzical.com/troy-mi) agrees. “I like to sip on it with a cube of ice and enjoy the different types of notes. I recommend trying something new. There are many distilleries around us and I'm glad to have a really good one in our backyard.”

“The trick I learned is to take your time. Savor and sip,” says Julie Flores, For Your Benefit Marketing (foryourbenefitmarketing.com). “It’s interesting that the flavor changes by adding ice cubes or a few drops of water. If you’re used to doing quick shots of tequila, you’ll find bourbon a whole different experience.”

The team at Shankar Distillers is putting the finishing touches on its Tasting Room in Troy and will be open to the public for tours, tastings and events this fall. Meanwhile, products are available at the distillery and local stores. Visit shankardistillers.com for updates.

"Smaller batches may not taste the same from one to another. You get little pops of flavor, and those flavor differences are what consumers want.” – Kylash Sivakumar, Master Distiller

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