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Pick any one of the 60 different bourbons behind the bar at Elm Square Oyster Co. in Andover, and bar manager Colin Welch can tell you the story behind it. Some are aged in sherry or port casks, one has traveled the world in a container ship, most are from small producers—and many are not from Kentucky. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon, an American whiskey that must be made from 51 percent corn, doesn’t have to be from the South, Welch says. Producers right here in Massachusetts, in upstate New York, and all over the country are crafting thoughtful small-batch takes on the spirit.

 “I try to find the rarer ones,” says Welch. “I have a pipeline to my distributors— when something comes in that is off the beaten path, they call me.”

This attention to detail is reflective of the whole philosophy at Elm Square Oyster Co. Just like the food, the liquor list is heavy on small American producers trying to do something unique—and Welch likes it that way. Each tipple has a distinctive personality that he clearly enjoys sharing with guests.

Take, for example, Jefferson’s Ocean, a Kentucky bourbon that travels around the world in barrels on container ships, crossing the equator about four times.

“People say they can taste a hint of the sea” in the Jefferson’s Ocean, Welch says. In fact, the rich, luscious spirit does carry a touch of brininess—or maybe it’s just the power of suggestion.

This bourbon obsession started about a year ago, when Welch, who has worked with Elm Square Oyster Co. owner Matthew Morello for nine years, helped transition the restaurant from its former French brasserie theme to a focus on local food and drink.

“Bourbon is a uniquely American spirit,” Welch says, adding that it is heavily regulated in this country, from the requirement that it is aged initially in charred new oak barrels to the strict banning of any added flavors or colors. 

Now, the restaurant’s impressive collection features everything from Hillrock Solera Aged, a New York State spirit that uses a technique generally reserved for sherry (blending a small amount of new bourbon into aging barrels), to Shay’s Rebellion American Whiskey, from Berkshire Mountain Distillers in western Massachusetts. While not technically a bourbon, since it’s distilled from Sam Adams beer, Shay’s Rebellion has turned heads with its unique flavor and local partnership.

“People rarely ask for something we don’t have, and if they do we can offer them something as good if not better,” Welch says. “The heavily advertised stuff always sells, but more and more people are willing to experiment.”

It’s right around this time every year that Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most highly sought-after bourbons in the world, is released, and Welch coyly admits that Elm Square sometimes gets a prized bottle—and sells it for $49 per two-ounce pour. If that’s too rich for you, he is happy to recommend a selection of delicious but less precious options. Most of their bourbons cost from $11 to $26 a serving. Or try a sample flight—the local tasting includes bourbons and whiskeys from New England, while a bourbon flight compares a traditional example of the spirit with a small-batch offering, one from a single barrel, and a rye whiskey.

While a single-barrel or small-batch bourbon is probably best enjoyed straight up or on the rocks, Welch says the liquor’s smooth sweetness makes it terrific in a wide range of cocktails. In fact, the spirit sneaks its way into many drinks that might classically call for another liquor. Take for example the Weather Permitting, the restaurant’s take on a Dark ‘n’ Stormy. Instead of rum, it features ?Nor’Easter Bourbon from Nantucket, ginger beer, and lime, making it ideal for a brown spirit neophyte. Or turn heads at the bar with Welch’s interpretation of a Sazerac—he spices up the classic New Orleans cocktail of rye whiskey, absinthe, and Peychaud’s Bitters by lighting a pile of cinnamon on fire and then upending a glass over it, adding a smoky warmth to the drink.

Or just ask Welch what he recommends—he’ll be happy to steer you toward the perfect bourbon—even with dessert.

Elm Square Oyster Co.

2 Elm Square, Andover