What is bourbon?
For people that don’t drink whiskey, sometimes all whiskeys get lumped together, with the possible exception of Scotch, which seems somehow special. Whiskey drinkers, on the other hand, are usually quick to assure you that there are many varieties of whiskey, each with its own flavor and characteristics. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Bourbon got its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Back when the U.S. was just a young, upstart country, Bourbon County was a major transshipment site for spirits that were heading south to New Orleans. Barrels shipped from the area were stamped with the county name, and soon the name became synonymous with whiskey. In this case, a whiskey that must meet very particular requirements.
First, the primary ingredient must be corn – at least 51%, although most top shelf bourbons are 70% corn or more. The whiskey must be distilled at not greater than 160 proof, and only new, charred, white oak barrels should be used for aging. In order to be called straight bourbon whiskey, it must be aged at least two years, but four years is a more common starting point.
The spirits must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and when it’s time to bottle the whiskey, only water can be added to adjust the bourbon to the appropriate strength. Nothing can be added to enhance the flavor, add sweetness, or change the color.
Most Kentucky counties have a legend claiming to be the birthplace of bourbon, none of which can be proven. It appears that Rev. Elijah Craig, who also founded Georgetown College, gets the credit for discovering the art of charring barrels for aging, although exactly how he made that discovery is up for debate. It might have been a brilliant idea. Or it might be that he had a supply of barrels that were damaged in a fire, and he was too thrifty to throw them out. Either way, Craig filled those charred barrels with whiskey and shipped them south. By the time the whiskey reached New Orleans, it had turned amber and begun to mellow. It was a hit.
The U.S. Congress declared bourbon as ‘America’s Native Spirit’ in 1964, and made it the nation’s official distilled spirit. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be distilled in Kentucky to be authentic, although the Kentucky Distillers Association says roughly 90% of all bourbon is made in the state, and Kentucky is the only state allowed to put its name on the label. In an odd bit of trivia, no bourbon is produced in Bourbon County.
Bourbon has become virtually synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, even if few people have actually tasted a mint julep.