|Mention "flavored whiskey" to your average scotch or bourbon drinkers, and it'll likely be enough to make them jump out of their seats, find the nearest bottle of root beer vodka and crack you over the head with it.
Bourbon whiskey doesn't play that game. It's not the tarted-up top-shelf celebrity that pineapple gin and whipped cream vodka are. Centuries of tradition provide its flavor. Generations of appreciators make up its entourage.
Bourbon isn't partied with, it's contemplated and enjoyed. That said, Scientific American notes that modern, more experimental distillers are studying the wood in whiskey barrels to see just how much they can toy with bourbon's flavor.
Just about the only simple portion of a bourbon's life is when it's poured into the glass. First it has to sit in American white oak barrels that are cooked, toasted and seasoned to leach a bit of coconut flavor into the mix.
Once distilled, whiskey enters those charred oak barrels to age. Chemical interactions within the barrel gives the whiskey flavors of vanilla, caramel, spice, toast, smoke, coconut, coffee and mocha. Vapor and barometric pressure push the liquid deep inside the wood, bringing out more intense flavor notes, which makes it a really good idea to stack the barrels of the good stuff as high as you can in your multistory warehouse.
Distillers like Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Ky., and Brown-Forman (BF.A)-owned Woodford Reserve have started messing with the chemistry within those barrels a bit to create new flavors. We're not talking about cheap gimmickry like blueberry whiskey, but enhanced notes of chocolate, nut and dark cherry that Woodford Reserve achieved by aging its 2012 "Four Wood" whiskey in maple barrels that once held fortified wine.
When both Brooklyn hipsters and heritage-minded Southerners feel like "experimenting" with whiskey, they bust out the stills and start making moonshine. But bourbon experimentation is both frowned upon and actively discouraged. Beam's (BEAM) Maker's Mark got a pass when it spiced up its Maker's 46 whiskey by putting it in French oak wine barrels. However, when the company tinkered with Maker's Mark's alcohol content in February, its followers didn't show any appreciation.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council trade association, whiskey made up a whopping 70% of the $1.5 billion in liquor the group estimates the U.S. exported in 2012. That's triple the nation's beer exports and $250 million more than its overseas wine shipments. While that supports distillers who don't want to mess with success, it has also provided Buffalo Trace with motivation to perform more than 1,500 barrel-aging experiments since 1987.