By Samantha Dobson

After spending a few decades in the shadows cast by the likes of vodka and tequila, America’s only native spirit is finally making a comeback. With deep southern roots and a history of backwoods bootlegging, bourbon struggled with a less sophisticated identity compared to that of other spirits. However, as all things retro eventually come back into style, the bourbon industry is once again booming. This bourbon revival coincides with a growing popularity of craft distillation and cocktail culture, resulting in some innovative ways to enjoy that subtly sweet corn whiskey.’

In it’s early days, bourbon was swigged straight from the bottle, but that harsh hooch our gun-slinging forefathers were tippling is a thing of the past. As distillation techniques have sophisticated and evolved over the years, the quality of spirits has reached a level worthy of sip and savor. Much like its whiskey counterparts, bourbon has developed a more refined variety of flavors and aromas. Meanwhile, quality has only continued to improve in this booming era of craft and micro-distilleries.

While many bourbon enthusiasts enjoy vintage or original recipes, the taste for something new is growing and so is the craft bourbon trend. Micro-distilleries are popping up not only in Kentucky, where 95 percent of all bourbon is distilled, but all across the country. These small-batch and single barrel distillers are crafting new premium bourbons with artisan methods. These craft distillers pride themselves on providing a quality product by using only organic, locally sourced ingredients or GMO- free Indian corns and limestone-rich water. When it comes to handcrafted bourbon, quality comes down to those little details.

Bourbon hasn’t experienced this much love in decades, and the surge in small batch and single barrel brands may be to thank. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, bourbon production has increased more than 170 percent since 1999. This growth is contributed to the rise in craft brands and distilleries. In Kentucky alone, the number of state-licensed distilling companies grew from 10 to over 30 in just three years, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association’s 2014 Economic Impact Study. That number continues to grow as start-up craft distilleries set up shop across the country.

Just as bourbon production has evolved, so has the way we consume bourbon. Bartenders have long been swapping other whiskies for bourbon in classic cocktails, but as more Americans acquire a taste for bourbon we are seeing increased variety in our whiskey cocktails. Long gone is the era of Cosmos and Sex on the Beach [ed note: About time!]. Bourbon, and whiskey in general, has bounced back just in time for the modern craft cocktail culture.

These days, there’s more to a bourbon cocktail than a Manhattan or a whiskey sour. Craft cocktails include unique ingredients and creative combinations, and bourbon cocktails are no exception. Thanks to the aging process in charred oak barrels, bourbon has a lot of character, making it the perfect base for creative cocktails. Bourbon muddled with exotic fruit, garnished with organic herbs, or flavored with unique bitters can be found on menus in both cocktail lounges and trendy restaurants. If artisan cocktails aren’t enough, food bloggers and TV chefs are whipping up recipes for bourbon floats and milkshakes that are to die for.

The recent upward trend in bourbon can be contributed to many things, but perhaps the biggest driving force behind the bourbon resurgence is authenticity. Bourbon is exclusively homegrown and plays a large part in our nation’s history. Along with baseball and apple pie, bourbon is about as American as it gets. In 2014, bourbon production reached 1.3 million barrels, the highest mark since 1970. As bourbon production and consumption continues to grow, the bourbon revival shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Featured Cocktails

The Seelbach

This rather unknown classic is named after the Lousiville, Kentucky hotel where it was created in 1917. The Seelbach cocktail was all but forgotten during the dry years of prohibition, but was brought back to life by a hotel manager in 1995. The Seelbach offers subtly sweet notes from the bourbon and orange liqueur, balanced by the spice of bitters and a dry yet refreshing lift from the champagne.

• 1 ounce bourbon

½ ounce orange flavored liqueur

• 7 dashes Angostura bitters

• 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

• Champagne

Pour bourbon, orange liqueur, and bitters into a mixing glass over ice and stir. Strain into a chilled flute and top with champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The Boulevardier

A close relative to the Negroni cocktail, the Boulevardier calls for bourbon instead of gin. The drink dates back to 1927 Paris, where it was featured in The Boulevardier magazine and Harry McElhone’s book, “Barflies and Cocktails”. The Boulevardier is the perfect balance between sweet and bitter to make a rich and complex cocktail.

• 1 ½ ounces bourbon

• 1 ounce Campari

• 1 ounce sweet vermouth

Pour ingredients into a mixing glass over ice and stir. Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with an orange slice.

Bourbon Lift

This fizzy concoction is a bourbon fan favorite at Hard Water in San Francisco, where it was created by bar manager, Eric Adkins. Bourbon and coffee liqueur go hand-in-hand in this deliciously sweet cocktail. The Bourbon Lift combines a light and airy froth with a rich and creamy base to give the taste buds a real treat.

• 1½ ounces bourbon

½ ounce orgeat

½ ounce heavy cream

½ coffee liqueur

• Soda water

Combine bourbon, or geat, heavy cream, and coffee liqueur in a shaker with ice and shake. Strain into a glass and stir while slowly adding the soda to achieve froth. Let sit for 20 seconds and add an ounce more soda water to lift the head. Serve with a straw.

Vanilla Bean

Bourbon Milkshake

Bourbon Milkshake

Make no mistake, this is not your kid’s milkshake. Celebrity chef, Bobby Flay’s boozy milkshake combines the rich, sweet flavors of vanilla and bourbon to keep your taste buds wanting more. With this delicious creamy blend, you’ll want to skip dinner and go straight for dessert.

• 1 ounce bourbon

½ cup whole milk

• 1 ¾ cups vanilla ice cream

• Seeds scraped from½ vanilla bean

Combine bourbon, milk, and vanilla bean seeds in a blender for 5 seconds. Add ice cream and blend until smooth.