Although the executive chef at Vince Young Steakhouse, Phillip Brown, is mainly in charge of the kitchen at the downtown restaurant, he also has a deep love of bourbon and has taken charge of putting together the considerable list of whiskeys there.
As a result, it’s one of the best selections of bourbon in the city (containing the likes of Jefferson’s, Four Roses and even Pappy Van Winkle). With just about one week left of National Bourbon Heritage Month, Brown offers these tips about what to look for when selecting a quality bourbon and how to drink it for maximum enjoyment.
Bourbon is made based around a few basic rules — it’s got to be comprised of at least 51 percent corn, for one, and aged in new charred oak barrels — but these regulations leave lots of room, as with any spirit, for both good and bad examples of the distinctly American whiskey. For that reason, whiskey drinkers have to be discerning about their choices. That doesn’t mean forking over half a paycheck for a few ounces of it at the bar is necessary, however: Brown emphasizes that good bourbons can still be affordable.
When browsing the list of whiskeys at your corner bar or the shelves at your neighborhood liquor store, you should seek out these regularly good brands. (Some will be easier to find than others.)
- Maker’s Mark. It’s one of the most prolific bourbons out there, and Brown recommends it for any bourbon novice who is uneasy about the spirit’s big, boozy flavors.
- Blanton’s: The Original Single Barrel Bourbon was reputedly the first bourbon to be drawn from a single barrel, rather than blended from many others of the same year, as most whiskeys are.
- Old Forester: Of the bottles to buy or try, keep an eye out for the special-edition birthday bourbon that rolls out in the fall each year after aging for 12 years. It yields mellow notes of butterscotch and candied fruits. And though it’s become so prized, Vince Young Steakhouse offers it at $10 a glass.
- Herman Marshall: Vince Young Steakhouse carries mainly bourbon brands from Kentucky — the state most known for making bourbon — but Brown also likes this whiskey from North Texas. It’s the first bourbon to be made in Dallas County since Prohibition.
- Garrison Brothers: This whiskey from nearby Hye, in the Hill Country, is another bourbon worth seeking out. The flagship, full of coconut, vanilla and nutmeg, is easiest to find and the one available at Vince Young Steakhouse, although the distillery has other alluring ones, too.
- Buffalo Trace: There’s nothing particularly fancy about the Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon, but there doesn’t need to be. If you see it on a menu, order it, Brown says, noting that “it’s a really good bourbon for its price point.”
- Four Roses: Brown can’t rave enough about the Four Roses brand and especially loves the small-batch barrel-strength option, which clocks in at a whopping 108 proof but is remarkably smooth, carrying notes of cinnamon, orange peel and vanilla straight through to the long finish. You can’t go wrong with any of the Four Roses selections you choose, however.
- Pappy Van Winkle: You won’t find any of the Van Winkle bottles in the liquor store, so your best bet is finding it a bar like Vince Young Steakhouse that takes care to stock up on the various expressions each year. The Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year is the most common and thus the cheapest, $15 at the steakhouse, but if you can locate an elusive bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year, get a glass of it. That one is Brown’s favorite.
“We’ve had guys come in just to drink Pappy,” Brown says, adding that it’s always a treat when a new customer walks in and sees the selection of elusive whiskeys on the top shelf at the bar.
Whatever whiskey you settle on, he recommends drinking it neat or with an ice ball that the bartender will drop into the glass. Sipping sans ice can truly draw out all nuances of the aroma and flavor, but sometimes diluting with the ice is helpful for people who don’t want the full blast and heat of the whiskey, especially if it’s at a higher proof (thus containing more alcohol).
Take a moment to gently nose the glass, drawing in the aroma of the liquid within before you take a sip. The senses of smell and taste are so linked together that this little sniff will help you form a more complete perception of the bourbon’s flavors.
Taste a little sweetness? That’s common for corn-heavy bourbon, whereas spice is the more dominating characteristic of rye, another type of American whiskey, and smoke is prevalent with Scotch.
But you’ll also taste characteristics of the barrel that bourbon was aged in: flavors like caramel, vanilla and toffee. Because bourbon is required to mature in new charred oak barrels — versus used ones whose wood has softened over time and through the influence of previous spirits — it doesn’t need long in them.
“You don’t see a whole lot of bourbons aged more than 10 or 15 years because of that,” Brown says. That’s what makes Pappy a special bourbon in his eyes — one best served neat, without anything that will dilute it.
In the end, of course, “there is really no right or wrong way to drink bourbon. Just enjoy it,” he says.