By Owen Stevens 

Just as the fiery hillsides of autumn morph into the white blankets of winter, my tastes change with the seasons. This ranges from my hankering for certain kinds of food (chili and cornbread on a Sunday afternoon), to my wardrobe (thermal henleys) and the color of the alcohol in my lowball (smoldering amber). That’s right, I’m talking about that beautiful potion known as bourbon.

Truth be told, I’m partial to whiskeys year-round. I’m inclined to imbibe gin and tonics and Moscow Mules with the best of them during the summer months, but as the leaves start to fall, foretelling of snowflakes to come, the desire for something refreshing turns into a need for something heartier to get me through the night.

This is where whiskey (or whisky depending on the region in which the elixir is produced) comes into the picture … or rather, the glass. Particularly bourbon. With a wonderful warming sensation and inclusion in dozens of delicious cocktail recipes, the cooler months are a perfect time to get better acquainted with my favorite liquor.

When I was younger, I was inclined to drink Irish whiskey, but only because I used to drink it exclusively out of shot glasses. Naturally, Jim Beam became my gateway whiskey when I discovered bourbon. Comparatively inexpensive, Mr. Beam always fits into my all-too-frequently limited beverage budget ($19.99 for 750 ML). If the bourbon is going to be mixed or in a cocktail, Beam will get the job done. 

When my budget allows for the (somewhat) finer things in life, I have a dynamic duo of options I go with: Maker’s Mark and Bulleit (both $24.99 for 750 ML). Knob Creek ($32.99 for 750 ML) earns honorable mention. 

Maker’s was the first bourbon I bought a bottle of, and I can’t say I’m surprised. The way the iconic red wax cap contrasts with the glowing contents of the bottle is too beautiful to ignore. 

Another wonderful aspect of Maker’s is that if you go out for drinks on Friday night and want to make pancakes Saturday morning, but find that you have no syrup and the batter is already on the griddle … the deliciously sweet vanilla-crossed-with-maple finish of Maker’s is a fine substitute for Aunt Jemima. (I didn’t really do this … OK, so it was a couple of years ago.) Maker’s is tasty and warms slowly.

As for Bulleit, it burns hotter than Maker’s, but it burns so good as it goes down. Not as accessible as Maker’s Mark in my book, Bulleit gives the drinker a unique experience. Bulleit has a big, bold taste up front that immediately hits you like … well, a bullet, especially during the initial sip. While I’m a huge fan of the flavor, it may be a bit overwhelming for some. Blessed with an abundance of rye, the aftertaste is darkly sweet and lingers for a good long count or three.

Perfectly drinkable on its own, I use Bulleit to make my favorite cocktail of the moment. With minimal prep time or ingredients required, a Bulleit lemon tonic (1.3 oz. Bulleit, 4 oz. tonic, lemon wedge over ice … the name says it all) has an inviting taste without being saccharine. A tiny bit tart from the citrus, the bourbon’s strong finish is dulled, but the heat is cooled to a pulsating warmth.

If you’re looking to step it up a notch, I’ve included some top-shelf picks purchased for friends and parents over the years to escape the doghouse. My dad received Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea ($64.99 for 750 ML), and a buddy was the beneficiary of a bottle of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ($54.99 for 750 ML). I never had a taste, but both assured me that even if I was a rescue pup that chewed up every stick of furniture in their living room, they would have thought twice before abandoning me on a highway median, at the very least. 

Moral of the story: Bourbon cures all.

An honorary Wisconsinite after spending 15 years in various parts of the state, Owen Stevens graduated from UW-Stevens Point. Like any good adopted son of Wisconsin, he enjoys sports and, of course,  drinking, among other things.