A Full Guide of the Best Bourbon for Cooking

Cooking with liquor such as bourbon has become something of a lifestyle for many people. If you are looking to join the bandwagon, then this article is worth reading to the end. And for your information, the best bourbon for cooking is certainly Jim Beam Bourbon.

Bourbon is a real treat in savory as well as sweet foods, thanks to its caramel and vanilla flavors. The smoky undertones of bourbon are an excellent addition to sauces and meats. If you add a splash of bourbon along with ingredients such as pears, brown sugar, pecans, apples, vanilla, pork, and ham, then you are in for a real treat.

This is the primary reason why many enjoy bourbon-centric holiday treats at this time of the year, such as bourbon balls, roasts, and eggnog.

Best Bourbon for Cooking

bourbon for cooking

The type of bourbon you choose for cooking has a significant impact on the flavor of the dish or food. For instance, high rye bourbons exhibit spicy tones which can be used conveniently as salad dressings and as any creamy sauce. If you are looking for something that will enhance the taste of fruits and desserts, then wheated bourbon comes to the rescue, thanks to its unique sweet taste.

And of course, remember to add something slightly acidic if you need to put bourbon in salad dressing. A perfect example of the acidic “something” is citrus, which can cut down on the sweetness of the condiment.

There is hardly any meat that can withstand the power of bourbon. This alcoholic beverage breaks decompose enzymes present in meat, thereby functioning efficiently as a multitasking meat tenderizer. This is probably the reason why bourbon is a non-negotiable ingredient in marinades as well.

Warning: Cooking with Bourbon

You should not break your bank just because you feel you need to buy top-shelf bourbon to cook with. Bourbons in this category indeed make food taste good.

On the other hand, it does not also imply that you should go for any cheap hooch you can point your finger at in any liquor store. Follow the bourbon connoisseurs’ advice: if you can’t stand drinking the bourbon, then it is probably not suitable for cooking any food.

Proof of Bourbon for Cooking: Does It Make Any Difference?

If you don’t know much about cooking with bourbon, then you need to pay attention to the fact that the alcohol content of your preferred bourbon plays a significant part in the taste of your dish.

Let’s repeat it: the alcohol content of your beloved bourbon can make or break the taste of your dish. The alcohol content has to do with the proof of the beverage.

What you need to know – expectedly – is that when bourbon – or any other alcoholic beverage for that matter – is cooked, the chemical composition changes. The alcohol content is burned up, thus leaving the flavor behind.

Bourbons with low proofs do not require too much time to cook off the alcohol content in them. But bourbons with higher proofs take more time to burn off the alcohol.

But then, irrespective of whether or not the bourbon you choose for cooking your favorite dish is high-proof or low-proof, burning off that alcohol will take a while. This may – or may not – be accounted for in the recipe you are working on, so you need to keep that in mind as well.

Thirdly, you must know that bourbons with high proofs, i.e. high alcohol, quickly coagulates fats and meats much faster than you would like, thereby enhancing jams, jellies, and desserts with smoky flavors.  Malted barley also adds cereal notes to dishes that many people love and also love to hate. Such notes readily enhance risottos, breads, pilafs as well as any fruit crisp that makes use of oats in the topping.

So, you should be extra careful when making use of high-proof bourbon in a marinade, sauce, etc. by accounting for it as well.

According to expert chefs, if you are making use of bourbon in sauce, you need to make sure that the sauce simmers to cook out the alcohol. Bourbon not only cooks meats, eggs, etc. but also curdles dairy. Use a bourbon in a marinade, and you will be blessed with an excellent effect on flavor.

And it is definitely a wrong idea to pour bourbon into a pan that is set over an open flame. The alcoholic beverage can ignite and can even result in a fireball!

And lastly, don’t use too little or too much bourbon in your cooking as well as for sipping.

The Best Bourbons for Cooking

So, this is the part where you get to discover the best bourbons to use for cooking any dish. Once again, you should pay attention to the proofs of these alcoholic beverages if you hope to get the best out of them.

The bourbons on this list are great for sipping as well as for cooking.

Four Roses Yellow

four roses yellow

Four Roses Yellow is a bourbon that is relatively easy to locate in most liquor stores around the world and online. This alcoholic beverage portrays flavors of apple, pear, and vanilla, which can make your dessert to pop excitingly.

The bourbon also has a somewhat oaky taste along with some spiciness which adds a lot of subtle differences to marinades, savory dishes, and sauces.

What makes Four Roses Yellow an excellent bourbon for cooking is that none of the flavors in the drink stands out distinctly on their own. Moreover, it is not only the perfect choice bourbon for sipping but will also not overpower the characteristics of any food when used for cooking. Four Roses Yellow is also a low-proof alcoholic beverage.

Beef Tenderloin with Bourbon

The roast beef tenderloin is perfect for a dinner party, holiday meal, etc. Ensure you marinate the beef for 6 hours, minimum before roasting time.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup good-quality bourbon
  • 2/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon dried leaf thyme
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 beef tenderloin, about 5 pounds (trimmed)
  • 1 cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

Steps to Follow

Combine bourbon, soy sauce, brown sugar, cilantro, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, water, and thyme. Fold the thin tail end of the beef back underneath the roast, so the meat is relatively uniform in thickness. Secure the meat with cooking twine and then place in a nonreactive pan or dish or resealable food storage bag.

Pour the marinade over tenderloin, cover, and refrigerate for up to 6 or 10 hours. Then turn the meat from time to time to keep it coated with the marinade

Preheat your oven to 400 Fahrenheit. Then roast, uncovered, basting from time to time for at least 45 to 50 minutes for medium-rare to medium. A meat thermometer should read about 135 Fahrenheit for medium-rare, 145 Fahrenheit for medium.

Jim Beam

Jim Beam is a low-proof bourbon and a highly trusted brand in the bourbon universe. It is a great bourbon that is widely employed for mixing drinks and a great sipper as well.

Using Jim Beam bourbon in your cooking will turn out any dish with the best flavors. Its low-proof characteristic implies that you will not wind up with the spice that high-proof liquor provides along with the dreaded burn.

Jim Beam Barbecue Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
  • 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons mustard (dry)
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (ground)
  • Optional: Dash liquid smoke

Steps to Follow

  • Combine all the ingredients in the 2-quart saucepan.
  • Bring everything to a boil over high heat, stirring from time to time.
  • Reduce heat to low and allow to simmer, uncovered for at least 20 minutes, or until it thickens, stirring occasionally.

Evan Williams Black Label

Evan Williams Black Label

Evan Williams Black Label is alleged to be the second-bestselling bourbon in the world after the legendary Jim Beams. And this is attributed to its sweetness as well as flavors of toffee, caramel, and something akin to candy corn.

These flavor notes make Evan Williams bourbon – which is aged between 5 and 7 years – great for not only holiday drinks but also for bourbon balls and other desserts as well. The bourbon is 86 proof, making it the perfect choice for cooking a wide variety of dishes.

Kentucky Bourbon Balls

Ingredient

  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 2 cups confectioner’s sugar (divided)
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup fine vanilla wafer crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Steps to Follow

  • Gather all the ingredients.
  • Combine the vanilla wafer crumbs, 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, chopped pecans, and the cocoa powder thoroughly.
  • In a separate bowl, blend the bourbon and corn syrup.
  • Stir the bourbon mixture into the dry mix and blend everything well.
  • Cover and allow to chill for a few hours.
  • Sift about 1/2 to 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar into a wide but shallow bowl.
  • Shape small bits of the dough into balls and then roll them in the confectioners’ sugar. Eat immediately. You can also store in the refrigerator in tightly covered containers for up to 2 weeks.

Old Grand-Dad Bourbon

Old Grand-Dad Bourbon

If you are looking for a classic bourbon to use for your cooking, the 80-proof Old Grand-Dad bourbon should be the target. This bourbon comes in two popular versions of this classic bourbon, i.e. the 80-proof version and the 100-proof version. The 80-proof should be your target and the best one to use for cooking any dish.

The Old Grand-Dad bourbon comes with flavor notes of spices, caramel, and vanilla, which make any dish to stand out. The bourbon also portrays notes of oak and citrus, thereby making the alcoholic beverage an excellent addition to spicy dishes.

And since many bourbon lovers and enthusiasts generally love to drink the 100-proof version of Old Grand-Dad bourbon, taking sneak sips of this 80-proof version while you are cooking may not be a good idea.

Coopers’ Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Coopers Craft Original bourbon is bottled at 82.2 proof which presents a gentle flavor profile that balances out through the finish. Every bourbon newcomer, as well as bourbon enthusiasts alike, love and appreciate the remarkable smoothness of this inviting alcoholic drink.

Redemption Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Redemption Straight Bourbon whiskey is a mid-range alcoholic beverage that packs a variety of flavors with textures that are unparalleled with other bourbons used for cooking.

It is a whiskey is an alcoholic beverage made with corn-heavy mash bill, thus making it somewhat sweeter than many high-rye bourbons out there. The beverage portrays notes of toast, corn, and wood along with an extraordinary buttery texture.

And be careful when using this great bourbon for cooking as it makes a great and enjoyable sipper.

Other bourbons that you can use for cooking include:

  • Old Forester
  • Rebel Reserve or Rebel Yell
  • Old Crow
  • Henry McKenna
  • Ancient Age
  • Ezra Brooks

How Does Bourbon Get Its Savory Flavor?

Bourbon is a classic American spirit that is experiencing a massive boom at this time. Many whiskey producers are going to doing their best to keep up with the ever-growing demand for this alcoholic beverage. Several dozen full-sized distilleries are going to great lengths to pump out bourbon in the United States, and many micro-distilleries are popping up left, right, and center to cope with the demands.

And it makes one wonder why this sudden interest in bourbon, all of a sudden?  There is only one apparent reason for this boom, and it has to do with the savory flavor many drinkers love. And that is why in this section, we’ll be taking a look at how bourbon gets its rich and spicy flavor.

The Bourbon Rules

There are several rules or guiding principles that dictate what can be called “bourbon,” nevertheless, there is a lot of room for bourbon distillers to play and the primary reason why there is a wide range of both quality and flavor within the bourbon family.

Mash Bill

All bourbon, no matter the origin, starts with the mash bill, and this refers to the chosen ratio of grains that a distillery goes with. For a whiskey or alcoholic beverage to be tagged a “bourbon,” the mash bill must have nothing less than 51 percent corn. That is the #1 rule.

The remaining part of the mash bill is usually composed of malted barley and rye. Some mash bills, however, may contain wheat, and bourbons produced from such mash bills are known as “wheated bourbon.” Wheated bourbons are usually sweeter than regular bourbon.

Some bourbon producers make use of two different mash bills. For instance, Four Roses, a renowned bourbon brand, uses two mash bills, i.e. the “B-Mashbill” is 60 percent corn 35 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley. “E-Mashbill” on the other hand, is 75 percent corn, 20 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley. This mash bill, which is heavier with rye, comes with a full-bodied, spicier flavor than its counterpart.

How it all begins

bourbon produce

When the grains are purchased, they come in dry form and are carefully quality- controlled. Now, many distilleries usually share a common grain source, and so if there is anything wrong with the grain – such as the presence of mold or must – they will inform one another.

Musty and moldy flavors can go a long way all through both the distillation as well as the aging processes, thus ruining a whole batch quickly and easily. So it is vital to avoid buying musty and moldy grains.

After purchasing the high-quality grains, after they have been processed, they will be transferred to what is referred to as a “beer well” where the cooking process will begin.

The Cooking Process

When the cooking process begins, corn is usually the first component that is added and cooked at a high temperature of about 220 Fahrenheit. Then, it is allowed to cool down for a considerable period before rye and barley are subsequently added and mixed. This combination or mixture is what is referred to as “mash.”

Large pumps circulate the mash during the cooking process to ensure that it is cooked correctly in a balanced way. The entire cooking process takes a bit less than an hour. If the grains are overcooked, they may start releasing undesirable flavors; meanwhile, what is desired at this juncture is the sugars.

At this stage of the cooking process, the mash starts giving off a mouth-wateringly pleasant smell that is much like beer and hot cereal.

Yeast and Fermentation

As soon as the mash is allowed to cool after the intense cooking session, it is then piped over or conveyed via pipes to a large fermenter where the alcoholic magic takes over immediately.

Now, this is the stage at which the microorganism that is known as “yeast” is employed. Yeasts are those little microorganisms that reproduce asexually by division or budding, and this mutation occurs exceptionally quickly.

There are several thousands of different types of yeasts out there. They are usually employed in this bourbon-making process to feed off of sugars in the mash. In the process of doing so, alcohol, as well as carbon dioxide, is produced as byproducts accordingly.

What is surprising about this segment is that different yeasts yield different results or flavors. This is one of the primary reasons why distilleries jealously guard their patented yeasts and treat is as a trade secret because it plays a crucial role when it comes to the flavor of the final product.

The yeast strains are cultivated carefully, and when the time comes for a new run of bourbon, a small amount of the desired yeast is added. It is added along with a cup or two of a sterile yeas mash, i.e. a sweet solution that creates the right environment for yeast to thrive.

As soon as the yeast has been able to propagate, the two cups of the liquid are then added to a large bucket to give room for more propagation to occur. And that is how some distilleries end up getting an ample quantity of yeast for the inoculation of large fermenters.

As soon as it is ready, it is tossed right into the mash that is already waiting in the large fermenters. And so, as the yeast starts taking action on the entire mixture, the solution starts bubbling in such a way that is reminiscent of simmering soup. While that process is going on, the whole room where this process is taking place is permeated with a sweet and beautiful smell that is much like that of sourdough bread that is just starting to bake.

The vats are warmed until the entire solution reaches approximately 10 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). Then the time to concentrate the stuff is here.

The Distillation Process

If this were a beer-making process, having a 10 percent alcohol by volume would be considered pretty strong for a beer. But the #2 rule to abide by when making bourbon is to ensure that it is bottled at no less than 40 percent alcohol by volume or more. So, that means there is more work to be done.

Traditionally, bourbon used to be made in a large pot still, but today, most of the large distilleries that produce bourbon have replaced the pot still with what is known as “continuous stills” or “column stills.”

The continuous still is basically a large vertical tube that is cut into partitions using metal plates. Every one of these sections acts as a miniature pot still and works in series.

The plates situated at the bottom of the column are usually very hot, hot enough to make almost all the liquid to evaporate. But since the column is high, the plates get cooler by every inch, thereby causing the evaporated liquid to start condensing and fall back down.

The alcohol – which typically boils at a much lower temperature – remains vapor and keeps rising until it reaches the next level.

The End Product of the Distillation Process

At the end of the distillation process, you will be left with what is known as “low wine” which is essentially a clear liquid that ranges between 45 and 65 alcohol by volume, i.e. 90 – 130 proof.

However, this is not the final product as there is still a lot of funk on it at this particular point in the production process. And so, the low wine is distilled once again, but in a smaller still, that is called a “doubler.”

When it comes out of the doubler, the spirit is now about 5 percent higher in alcohol by volume. However, the nasty edge has been eradicated. The spirit is still strong but less harsh, and is called “high wine.” High wine is generally known as “white dog” or “white whiskey” or “lightning.”

The Movement

The raw spirit or high wine is then loaded onto large tanker trucks which can hold up to 6,700 gallons each and conveyed to a bottling and warehouse facility. Take note that this entire process is the procedure that is followed in the Four Roses distillery; it may be slightly different from other whiskey plants, though the process is generally the same.

For instance, the Four Roses distillery works in 28.5-hour days during which they do eight cooks, fill up eight fermenting vats, and process the same number through the column still.

Then, run the low wine through the doubler, and send out at least two 6,700-gallon trucks worth of raw spirit. The distillery makes use of approximately 7,000 gallons of water a day. This is the primary reason why the plant only produces fall through spring as the nearby river from which they draw water is usually too low to support operation during summer.

The Oak Barrels

The #3 requirement for any spirit to be called a “bourbon” is that it must be aged in brand new, charred, white-oak barrels. The majority of distilleries out there do not make their own barrels but usually, buy them pre-built and pre-charred from third parties. Many distilleries – including Four Roses – go through a company known as Independent Stave to secure oak barrels for aging.

When it comes to the barrels used in aging the spirit that turns out as bourbon, there are several variations that different plants employ. For instance, different barrels come with a variety of staves in them, which will affect or influence oxidation levels, no matter how slightly. Distilleries are also at liberty to request either a light char or a heavy char, and the latter means the barrels will be burnt for a much-extended period than the former.

The oak barrels play a highly crucial role in the flavor of the bourbon. As much as 95 percent of the sweetness tasted in regular bourbon originates from the wood-sugars in the oak barrel.

Why Must the Oak Barrels be Charred?

When oak barrels used for the aging of bourbon are charred, it caramelizes the wood sugars and brings them closer to the surface of the wood. And so, when “high wine” is placed in such barrels and left to mature for a period, the wood sugars can easily be extracted by the spirit and permeates the bourbon maximally. This is the same reason why bourbon in a bottle does not age, no matter how long it is left on a shelf.

The Maturation or Aging Process

Many distilleries use up to 55-gallon barrels for aging their spirit. When the spirit is poured into the charred, oak barrels, it is about 62.5 percent alcohol by volume or 125 proof. This is another guiding principle when it comes to the production of bourbon.

Water is then added to the spirit to bring down the proof, if necessary. Then, the plug or bung is hammered into the bung-hole – did you even know that was where “that” came from? – and the maturation process begins.

Aging and Testing

The oak barrels are rolled into a warehouse and left to age. Again, different distilleries use a different number of warehouses while some lend spaces and even oaks to each other for aging their spirits. Four Roses, for instance, uses up to 20, one-acre warehouses to stock their aging bourbons. Each warehouse can hold up to 24,000 oak barrels at a time, bringing the maximum capacity to 480,000 barrels or 26,400,000 gallons of aging bourbon.

Each of these warehouses is connected with a broad trough; this was put in place so that in case one of the warehouses catches fire, these troughs will direct the river of burning whiskey away from the other warehouses close by.

Interestingly, Four Roses is the only large distillery that houses aging barrels of whiskey in single-story warehouses. The reason behind this is simple; they want to minimize temperature variation, which also has a significant impact on the resulting whiskey.

Some barrels – usually the ones at the top – will gain proof while some at the bottom will lose proof. The ones in the middle typically remain the same.

Why Only A Few Distilleries Keep Their Whiskey in Underground Warehouses

So, you may be curious by now and be asking yourself “Why doesn’t everybody keep their aging whiskey in underground warehouses where temperature can be regulated or remain the same?” That is a good question.

You see, the variation of temperature is actually a good – and necessary – thing. As the temperature rises and falls, the wooden barrels also expand and contract correspondingly. This action sucks in the whiskey and then pushes it back out. It is this steady ebb and flow that enables the aging spirit to absorb as much wood-sugars as it can from the oak barrels.

Correcting the Misconception that Aging is Always Better

There is this misconception that aging whiskey is always better. But that is far from the truth. The first thing that will dissipate is the wood sugars, and as soon as they are gone, the spirit starts getting more tannic by the day. That is when those common bitter wood characteristics begin to emerge.

The trick, therefore, is to pick and use the oak barrels when they are at their peak of performance because as soon as the sugars are entirely gone, you can have only about six months left to use them.

Determining Peak of Performance

It is the determination of this peak of performance that is more art than science. Two oak barrels of whiskey may be identical in every perceptible way. But one may reach maturity at just six years while the other reaches its peak at eight. Some barrels may even appear to operate with surprisingly “magical” powers as they keep getting better with age, though this is incredibly rare.

So, to determine if the aging spirit is ready for bottling, tasting the barrels begin at five years or thereabout.

They start by drilling a couple of small holes, let a little of the aging bourbon out, and plug up the holes using a couple of wooden spikes. If they have to remove and replace the bung every time they want to taste, it will not only be a messy process but also very labor-intensive. Moreover, they will have to remove the barrels from their racks as well, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

As soon as a particular barrel – or a group of barrels – are determined to be at their peak, they are removed from the warehouse and placed in a large trough that runs all the way to a tank. This is where they will be stored with other matured bourbons of their type.

Blending and Bottling Bourbon

Many bourbon brands in the United States have several varieties. The Four Roses Yellow Label 80-proof bourbon, which is one of the alcoholic beverages that are ideal for cooking, is a blend of all ten recipes that originate from the brand.

But everything boils down to the distinct flavor profile every brand wants to achieve. So, they prepare the blends according to their patented ratios, recipes, smoothness, richness, etc.

But as they make the blends, they also taste as they go. They will keep adding one stuff or another, tweaking the ratios, etc. until the particular flavor profile they are looking for is achieved. As soon as this happens, they start the bottling process.

The bottling process is a combination of manual labor and automated machinery. For instance, a machine fills the bottles with bourbon to the perfect measure while a group of workers puts corks onto every bourbon bottle. Another machine tamps the corks all the way down while some dudes load the bourbon bottles into boxes.

In places like Asia and Europe, however, the finished bourbon is typically pumped into a tanker and shipped off overseas for bottling at either Japan or the United Kingdom.

And that, my dear friends, is how your favorite, golden, and tantalizing bourbons originate from and also get their unique flavors or taste.

Conclusion

The bourbons listed here may not be the only ones or varieties or brands that are used for cooking. However, they are the most popular brands out there. You are at liberty to give other bourbons a try in when cooking.

Just bear in mind that the proof of bourbon has a significant impact on the outcome of whatever it is you are cooking and that you should only use a bourbon that you enjoy drinking!

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holtben6

Ben has years of experience with wine, whiskey, and scotch. After becoming a wine sommelier, he decided to focus his attention on the dark southern gold we call whiskey. Now a seasoned vet in the whiskey game, he regularly provides Whiskey Watch with the latest whiskey info and his personal opinion on the best whiskeys in the world.
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