glass of whiskey on bar

The Reason Behind Nutmeg in Bourbon: A Look Exploration

Bourbon is a neat drink. It’s a great liquor to sip straight, and dazzle in its intricacy of flavor. Many decisions during production impact the spirit’s palate — from the yeast to distillation type, barrel selection, and more. In fact, even the bourbon’s water source makes all the difference to its taste, drawing a terroir-like comparison to wine.

There’s lots to unravel in how these elements come together, but it’s clear that after the aging process, the grain composition has the biggest impact on bourbon’s flavor. In the bourbon world, the mash bill is like the recipe for each resultant spirit. It requires at least 51% corn to achieve its federally-regulated bourbon moniker, but past that, it’s a malleable mix. While sometimes left mysterious, brands often release the delineated percentages of their employed grains.

As a result, certain mash bill configurations result in specific bourbon flavors. And if your bottle leans especially heavy on the nutmeg, that usually means there’s barley and perhaps some rye in the mix — so seek out such a grain combo for spice-laden sip.

Bourbons with nutmeg notes often contains barley and sometimes rye

pictured bottle of Buffalo Trace

Spice is a frequent tasting note in bourbon, and appears both like a mulling spice and in the chili-pepper-like manner. It’s not intrinsic to the style, since the corn and barrel-aging process makes sweetness the underlying flavor. It’s most strongly interlinked with rye, which is the spiciest whiskey type.

If a bourbon includes rye, it doesn’t necessarily mean that nutmeg is a dominant note. Instead, it may taste strongly of cinnamon or have a hot capsaicin quality. Sometimes, however, rye exhibits baking spice qualities akin to nutmeg, hence the grain’s correlation to the spice.

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A stronger candidate for a very nutmeg-forward tasting note is barley. A somewhat underrated grain, this compound leads to malty and sweeter notes, as well as spice notes. It’s a more strongly correlated candidate for bourbon’s that double down on the nutmeg note. Fans of such a Christmas-like flavor should turn to some of the best ranked Buffalo Trace bottles, as well as Angel’s Envy for a sample of such a palate.

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