America loves its bourbon. We stand in line for it. We (slurrily) wax poetic about it. We fall into embarrassingly overexaggerated southern porch drawls after about four fingers of it. But how much do most of us actually know about it? Beyond its sweet, sweet brown beauty, that is.
There’s plenty to know about bourbon, and not for random trivia’s sake. (Though if you win your next bar trivia night, feel free to share the cash prize with us.) Bourbon is the kind of thing where the more you learn about its history, the richer and the fuller it tastes on the tongue. Learning about bourbon while drinking it is like putting a sepia filter on a soft, mellow buzz.
Basically, knowing about bourbon is the opposite of being forced to memorize state capitals. (And by the way, how is Philadelphia NOT Pennsylvania’s capital? Between the cheesesteaks, and the jail—and courthouse—in the Eagles stadium, they gotta win that.)
That’s an argument for another time, ideally on a porch, sipping bourbon, making friends, or enjoying the sprinkled, spritely melody of birdsong. (Yep, I’ve been drinking bourbon). But onto the facts. Ahem…
Bourbon can be made anywhere.
Yes, bourbon is mostly associated with Kentucky. There’s even a county called Bourbon. But legally speaking, bourbon can be made in Ohio, Florida, even terrible (awesome) New Jersey. Culturally, and rightfully—by mass production and history—it is spiritually associated with Kentucky. But from an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka TTB) standpoint, it can be made anywhere in the United States. Just don’t say that if you’re in Louisville.
Bourbon is primarily, legally, a corn product.
We’re not talking straight moonshine. But all bourbon has to be made with a minimum of 51% corn. That’s one of the reasons it’s historically “American.” (You know, like Donald Trump?) You can make bourbon with 100% corn, though most bourbons are made with some proportion of corn and other grains, e.g. barley, wheat, rye. Some bourbons use more corn, and are sweeter, while others use rye for some spice or wheat, like Pappy. Which, yes, we’ll get to.
Bourbon can age in any kind of oak it wants.
Bourbon has to be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred (to a particular level, depending on the distillery’s preferences, though Char No. 4 is the most popular). But contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be aged in American oak at all. Per the poetry of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, bourbon is “Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.” See, no mention of American in there at all. French oak, even Japanese Mizuna oak, would be fair game. So long as it was new (as in never used), and charred.
Despite its Eddie Bauer salt and pepper (yeah, sexist) studliness, bourbon doesn’t have to age a bit.
OK, well it does, but as long as it literally touches a charred new oak barrel, and also follows a bunch of other rules, bourbon can be called bourbon. Chuck some 51% corn whiskey into the appropriate barrel for 15 minutes at the right proof, bottle it at the right proof, and you’ve got yourself a quarter hour bourbon whiskey. No one Planet Earth will purchase it, but, congrats, you made it.
Where bourbon is distilled matters much less than where it’s aged.
That’ll sound like sacrilege in the age of terroir and local and “the whiskey is calling from inside the house,” but what makes bourbon bourbon is the nearly sexual push and pull between barrel and whiskey. With the right humidity and temperature, bourbon will soak into and suck out of the sides of the charred barrel, extracting important compounds—the ones that give it layers of woody caramel sugar and a soft slap of smoke. Which is why Kentucky probably lays claim to the most exquisite bourbon in the world. Sorry, everywhere else. It’s just true.
Bourbon barrels kept the Scotch industry alive.
Not sure if you’ve checked, but many Scotches are aged in post-use bourbon barrels. Since bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak, there’s no re-use. Yeah, not super green. Except what America’s done is send its bourbon barrels overseas, primarily to Scotland, where bourbon barrels are used for much of the maturation of Scotch. Not always the finishing, that’s another story. But if and when bourbon runs out, it’s gonna be a sad day for us and the Scots. Lots of halfhearted headbutting.
“Straight Bourbon Whiskey” is an age designation.
It means the whiskey has been aged in a charred new oak barrel for at least two years. You’ll see this on a lot of labels, since there is (again) NO age requirement for bourbon. But if you age bourbon for less than 4 years, you have to put an age statement. Meaning, if there’s no age statement, a bourbon has been aged longer than 4 years, but likely not a ton longer.
The whiskey has to go into the barrel at 62.5% ABV.
The concept being that strength of alcohol will encourage a certain amount of reactivity with the barrel. When it comes out, 10 minutes or 4 years later, it’s generally diluted with water. The only allowable additive to bourbon. Unless it’s Cask Strength (see below).
The whiskey has to go into the bottle at a minimum of 40% ABV.
That doesn’t mean all bourbon is 40% ABV. Far from it, and thank goodness. But that’s the lowest ABV you’ll find in any given bourbon—and generally the most constant.
Which brings us to Cask Strength.
Cask strength bourbon has not been watered down to the same 40% ABV level. Also known as “barrel proof,” cask strength basically means “this is what was in the barrel, now you drink it, and then possibly call that friend from high school who you had a fight with in Health Class.” More expensive but incredibly worth the purchase because cask strength isn’t just about booze—it’s about a different characteristics present in the bourbon. Huskier, more fiery, a bit angry but also apologizing to your palate with those sweet charry caramel (etc.) notes. It’s something to sit with for a while. Really, a while. Cask strength don’t wanna be messed with.
Bourbon does not allow caramel coloring.
Woops. Yeah, Scotch, presumably the most austere and serious of whiskies (which we worship and adore) can actually use caramel coloring as a “corrective,” meaning producers can adjust the appearance of the whisky to suit market expectations. Bourbon does no such thing. What comes out of the barrel stays that way. Until we all drink it, that is.
“Sour Mash” Bourbon does NOT taste sour.
Sour mash simply refers to the practice of using some of the previous batch’s fermentation to goose the next fermentation—kind of like using a sourdough starter in breadbaking. Except, again, there is no taste of sourness. Sour mashing is a common practice in bourbon, not just because it’s economical but because it suggests a possible consistency of product.
Bourbon is a fad.
It really is. Which is unfortunate, because fads basically drive up the price of a decent commodity and exclude some of us poorer (ahem) folks and turn a product of craftsmanship into something “sexy.” Bourbon will be fine, but it’s suffering a bit from its own cachet and we need to correct that by being way chiller about bourbon. It’s not the spirit that shows up to the party and offers everyone some “special” candy. Bourbon sits outside, by itself, enjoying the night sky and thinking about the history of any old thing. (Or, more often, nothing at all.)