If you ever find yourself searching for physical evidence of America's cultural significance, I suggest picking up a John Coltrane LP and a bottle of Maker's Mark. Sure, American culture has deeper roots than jazz and whiskey, but if those two don't instill some sort of national pride in you, nothing will.
While Scotch has long enjoyed a reputation as bourbon's sophisticated overseas relative, our humble, homegrown whiskey has enjoyed a renaissance among discerning drinkers in recent years, with the number of American craft whiskey distilleries increasing tenfold over the last 15 years alone.
By definition, bourbon is a uniquely American product. Although it can be produced anywhere in the country, the overwhelming majority of bourbon produced nationwide comes from Kentucky. Nearly all American whiskey falls into the bourbon category, with rye and Tennessee whiskey the runnersup. What's the difference? Bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, while rye must contain at least 51 percent rye. Tennessee whiskey can be considered bourbon, but its sugar-maple charcoal filtering process gives it a unique distinction. All three are aged in freshly charred American white oak barrels, giving them an amber hue and mild smokiness.
With boutique distilleries opening all over the country, it's easier than ever to find interesting bourbons, ryes and Tennessee whiskeys at your local bar. St Pete's Bar Milo has quite a selection to choose from, with entries demonstrating just how far from Bourbon County, Ky., our national spirit has grown. Here you'll find small-batch bourbons from as far away as Colorado (Colorado Straight Bourbon) and San Francisco (Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve — distilled by the same folks who make Anchor beers).
Although quality bourbon is great served neat, it goes just as well in cocktails. Bar Milo happens to specialize in such a thing, so feel free to order an Old Fashioned — the traditional bourbon cocktail, made from sugar, bitters, bourbon and water, garnished with an orange slice and a Maraschino cherry.
Another quintessential whiskey cocktail is the manhattan, unsurprisingly found right at the top of the menu at Tampa's Manhattan Dolce Bar & Bistro. Although any whiskey can be used, the two standard options here are Hudson rye and Gentleman Jack, mixed with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and garnished with a Maraschino cherry. I prefer rye myself. Make sure to order it with a dash of Angostura bitters to accentuate the spiciness of the rye, or to provide a counter to the sweetness of the bourbon, if you'd prefer. For something different, try the Bourbon Ball — Maker's Mark with Frangelico and DeKuyper White Crème de Cacao, served with a large sphere of ice.
No discussion of bourbon would be complete without mention of the mint julep, a cocktail as iconic as they come. The best julep in town has to go to Beachwood BBQ at the Postcard Inn on the Beach in St. Pete Beach. Beachwood went so far as to purchase its own barrel of bourbon from Kentucky's Four Roses Distillery, bypassing the usual blending process to obtain a product comparable to single-malt Scotch (this is what the "single barrel" distinction refers to). Beachwood Bourbon, as they call it, is wonderful served neat, with a subtle smokiness and smooth oak notes, but it's absolutely phenomenal in the PCI Julep, mixed with fresh mint and powdered sugar in a tin julep cup.
Beachwood's rustic, natural wood interior is an ideal environment for some American whiskey sampling, and in that regard you'll find many options. Two uncommon selections include the small batch Temptation Bourbon (hand-numbered by batch and bottle) and its cousin, Redemption Rye. The latter is a powerhouse, made up of a staggering 95 percent rye content. That one's gonna burn a bit.
If you find that rye suits your tastes, try Bulleit Rye at The Bungalow, a historic South Tampa house that's been converted into a bar and restaurant. Bulleit made quite a name for itself during the initial small-batch bourbon explosion a decade or so ago, and this whiskey easily lives up to the brand's standard. This is also your chance to try another American classic: George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. It's a fairly straightforward but surprisingly smooth whiskey that's perfect for sipping on the Bungalow's old Florida-style outdoor patio.
For some creative mixology and a classic, Prohibition-era vibe to go with your whiskey, take a trip to Mandarin Hide, St. Pete's most popular classic cocktail spot. The bourbon menu is bursting at the seams, with selections such as Hudson's 4-Grain and Baby bourbons; small-batch favorites Basil Hayden's, Baker's and Blanton's; Eagle Rare 10-year; and even the rare Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 12-year. Alas, the latter is on backorder — I anxiously await its return.
Mandarin Hide is known for mixology, so take a look at the cocktail list to see if anything strikes your fancy. Manny's Bulleit & Ginger is simple and effective, as is the Sazerac, New Orleans' classic cocktail. That one features Sazerac rye, Peychaud's bitters and simple syrup, served in an absinthe-rinsed glass. If those don't seem elaborate enough, dig a little deeper; you'll find a truth already discovered by the Mandarin Hide and other bars with a keen eye for the whiskeys of America — bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskeys are about as versatile and satisfying as a spirit can hope to be.