As cool weather sets in, warm your insides with some old-fashioned whisky. In the first of a weekly series this month, we deliver the goods on bourbon: why it rocks, where to drink it and a kick-ass cocktail made with it. Next week, rye.
There's little question that Canada is a whisky country, but until relatively recently, for many tipplers the category barely extended beyond homegrown rye... or maybe a nice single malt Scotch if we were feeling fancy.
Growing interest in iconic tragic figures of 1960s Americana - Hunter S. Thompson, Janis Joplin and, ahem, Don Draper - has sparked interest in bourbon and turned it into one of the -trendier spirits, especially in Toronto, where cocktail culture has taken a turn to the classics. For years, the LCBO stocked only a handful of bourbons like Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey, but it's widened the selection as popularity rises.
But there's a reason why awareness of bourbon is limited to a few established brands: compared to other types of whisky, bourbon has a particularly rigid set of standards. It has to contain at least 51 per cent corn, it must be aged in new American oak barrels and, most importantly, must be made in America - preferably in Kentucky.
So if you've had bourbon once, you know what to expect: a sweet, aged taste. At the same time, whiskey (that's the conventional spelling for bourbon and Irish whiskey) drinkers are quickly discovering the endless nuances that differentiate one bottle from the next.
A cocktail so classic, it's age is right in its name. Its ubiquity on Mad Men has boosted its popularity, but its timeless recipe resists obsolescence:
2 oz bourbon
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 large ice cube
1 tsp sugar
Mix sugar, water and bitters in an old-fashioned glass. Drop in orange wedge. Muddle into a paste using the back of a spoon. Pour in bourbon, drop in ice and stir. Simple as that.
WHERE TO DRINK IT
(595 Markham, at Bloor, 416-536-3211). This Cajun Creole soul resto is deep into bourbon, with more than 30 varieties on the menu. Look for the $12 bourbon and sour mash tasting, which lets you choose four 1/2 oz shots. Great heated patio, too.
(1330 Queen West, at Elm Grove, 416-627-3459). One of Parkdale's hippest spots has an unavoidable queue out the door. If you want to pair your taco with a Kentucky whiskey, you've got 35 to choose from.
Toronto Temperance Society
(577A College, at Manning, firstname.lastname@example.org). You have to be a member to park yourself at this bar (a privilege that comes with a set of rules almost as long as its cocktail list), but once you've paid the fee you'll be greeted with a righteous 21-entry bourbon menu.
The Emmet Ray
(924 College, at Dovercourt, 416-792-4497). Named after the guitar player Sean Penn played in Woody Allen's Sweet And Lowdown - a prodigious drinker - the Emmet Ray offers more than 40 bourbons, including Blanton's Gold Label and the Van Winkle. Cash only, but there's an ATM on site.
(936 Queen West, at Shaw, 416-531-4447). A down-home Queen West hot spot with enough varieties to justify a separate bourbon menu - 25 to be exact.