Bourbon is hot.
And I'm not just talking about when it's poured into hot toddies or steamy Irish coffees. I'm talking bourbon as a spirits category.
In 2012, nearly 17 million 9-liter cases of bourbon were sold in the United States, generating more than $2.2 billion in revenue for distillers, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. While the strongest growth might be at the high end of the market, there's a strong market for small-batch bourbon.
"Bourbon is hot because bourbon is delicious," says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller at FEW in Evanston.
"People are ready for spirits, and they're motivated to get more in touch with handcrafted products," says Hletko, who also explains that while all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon.
By law, bourbon, a type of whiskey, must be produced in the United States, made of a grain mix of at least 51 percent corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, made without additives save for water to reduce proof where necessary, and aged in new, charred white oak barrels. A minimum of two years aging is required to call the liquor "straight bourbon."
The other types of whiskey are rye, a spirit made with rye grains, and malt whiskey, liquor made from malted barley. (Whisky, without the "e," refers to malted whiskey made in Scotland.)
At this time of year, when you might be looking for something a little different to stuff into Uncle Bob's stocking or mix up for your holiday party, bourbon fits the bill.
"Our bourbon is much spicier than, say, Jim Beam," Hletko said. "It doesn't taste like Kentucky bourbon because it's made in Illinois."
Maria Del Mar Sacasa, author of "Winter Cocktails" (Quirk, 2013), said she thinks American palates are ready for bourbon cocktails. Unlike white spirits, like vodka, that have that clean, clear flavor, bourbon "tastes like the barrel ... it's strong and potent on its own."
While Hletko prefers his bourbon "neat," that is in a glass all by itself, he admits it makes good cocktails with ginger beer as well as cinnamon and nutmeg flavors.
Sacasa likes bourbon with apple and pear and in her book shares a Hawaiian barbecue-inspired drink made with pineapple and bacon-infused bourbon. She also adds bourbon to her Bloody Good Punch, a blood orange flavored party drink made with sparkling wine.
Chef Elizabeth Karamel, who writes for The Associated Press, favors a take on the classic Old Fashion that she first sampled at Hogs and Hominy in Memphis, Tenn.
"What makes this old fashioned so much better for me is that the cherries and their sticky sweet pink syrup are gone," Karmel said. "The sweet notes are natural and perfect for the holidays -- orange and vanilla and spice. A big strip of orange zest is twisted to release the oils and rubbed all over the inside of the glass, creating the bold citrus aroma. It is removed and then placed in the glass as a garnish once the drink is made."
The drink is best served over one large ice ball, but in a pinch, regular ice is fine.
• Associated Press contributed to this article.