BOURBON - Americas Native Spirit
Bourbon has never been so popular, yet many people are still unsure how to approach it. It doesn’t have to be intimidating; you just need a brief lesson to get started (and maybe a few bottles of bourbon, too).
What Is Bourbon?
Bourbon is America’s contribution to the wonderful world of whiskey. By definition, bourbon is made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, produced in the United States, and aged in charred new oak barrels.
History of Bourbon
The invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, an 18th-century Baptist minister and distiller who is said to have been the first to age the liquor in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste. However, that story is almost certainly apocryphal, and it is more likely that bourbon evolved from local moonshine. It wasn’t until 1840 for the whiskey to officially be labeled “bourbon,” so called because it was distilled in Bourbon County, Kentucky. In 1964, an act of Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit” and the country’s official distilled spirit. At that time, the current regulations defining what can be called bourbon whiskey were established.
Like Cognac and Scotch, bourbon has some specific terminology associated with it, so let’s define our terms and take a look at different kinds of bourbon.
Proof—the proof of a bourbon or any spirit is a measure of its alcoholic strength, defined in the U.S. as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. For example, a bourbon that goes into the barrels at 100 proof is 50% alcohol. The term comes from 18th-century Britain, where sailors “proved” their rum rations were not watered down by splashing gunpowder with the spirit and then igniting it. If the powder burned, the rum was legit.
Sour mash—sour mash is a fermentation technique used by almost all bourbon distillers that uses pre-fermented mash from a previous distilling to start a new mash (like using a starter to make sourdough bread). The sour mash prevents wild yeast from entering the mash and causing infections.
Straight—by law, bourbon has no minimum age. Straight bourbon has been aged for at least 2 years. If it is aged for less than 4 years, then it must state how long it has been aged on the bottle.
Bottled in bond—bottled-in-bond bourbon must be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery. It must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least 4 years and bottled at 100 proof. The name refers to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. According to Adam Harris, American whiskey ambassador with Beam Suntory, the act “was introduced to ensure that whiskey producers were making their whiskey at a certain quality level and standard suitable for the public […] At the time, the act was so important as it not only allowed for an authenticated and consistent whiskey but also led to a market standardization that resulted in booming growth in the American whiskey market during the years leading up to Prohibition.”
High rye—high rye bourbon has a higher than normal percentage of its mash bill made up of rye. This tends to produce spicier flavors in the bourbon.
High wheat—high wheat, or wheated, bourbon has a higher than normal percentage of its mash bill made up of wheat. This tends to produce a softer, less spicy whiskey.
Small batch—small batch bourbon is made using a select number of barrels in a blended bottling.
Single Barrel—single barrel bourbon is a premium class of whiskey in which each bottle comes from an individual aging barrel, instead of coming from blending together the contents of various barrels to provide uniformity of color and taste.
Why Charred New Oak Barrels?
To understand why bourbon barrels are charred, it’s useful to know what’s going on in the wood itself. Charring essentially opens the wood up, making it easier for bourbon to extract flavors. It also catalyzes key chemical changes that are essential to bourbon. Ever tasted vanilla? That’s because lignin, the source of vanillin (vanilla), produces a higher level of flavor the longer a barrel is charred. Likewise, toffee and caramel notes come from hemicellulose, which breaks down into wood sugars in the presence of intense heat. The resting bourbon absorbs these sugars from the barrel interior’s caramelized surface as it ages.
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough”—Mark Twain
Ready to step into the marvelous world of bourbon? Stop by any of our six locations and our knowledgeable staff will help you find the right bourbon for you. We look forward to seeing you!