First, the basics: the most American of spirits can be made anywhere in America, though Kentucky is king. It has to be at least 51-percent corn but is often more. And it has to age in new charred oak barrels and be bottled at least 40-percent alcohol. But within that framework there are many tastes and traditions. And by all means, have your first mint julep of the season on Derby Day (May 5). Just not your last.
Maker's Mark 46 ($55) Maker's first new product in forever is like a spiked butterscotch pecan pudding. Sweet and complex.
Buffalo Trace ($40) Ignore the hokey label and you'll discover a perfect balance of corn and other grains. The perfect everyday bourbon.
Bookers ($56) Roasted coffee and vanilla, but quite feisty in a memorable way. If it were Scotch, it would be an Islay.
Bulleit ($35) This could pass for rye. The minimal sweetness and spicy profile make it great for cocktails.
Jim Beam ($25) Good ol' Jim Beam. It's simple and light and makes an ideal bourbon to learn on.
Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year-Old ($175) Truth? Unless you've tried it and like it, give this ultra-premium a pass, as its bitter profile is jarring.
Mint Julep Recipe
1 tsp confectioner's sugar
Handful of fresh mint
3 oz bourbon
Place 5 mint leaves in bottom of silver mint julep cup (or use a highball glass in a pinch) and top with sugar and a small splash of water. Muddle with spoon and let sit for 5 minutes. Fill cup with ice, pour bourbon over top and liberally garnish with mint sprigs. wl