In fact, bourbon doesn’t have to be made anywhere near Kentucky—and it can still be 100% authentic. It’s called “America’s Native Spirit,” after all, not “Kentucky’s Native Spirit.” Not that you should blurt this out to a Kentuckian after you’ve both had a few.
Let’s just look at the unbiased, sober (so to speak) regulations of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau—the way all sensitive matters of regional pride should be settled. According to the TTB, these are the only requirements for the production of “authentic” bourbon: that it’s produced in the United States, made with a minimum 51% corn content, distilled to no higher than 160 proof, and barreled at no higher than 62.5% ABV in charred, new oak containers. No mention of Kentucky or blue grass anywhere in there. So yes, you could make bourbon in Orlando, Florida, or Sitka, Alaska, and call it that—so say federal regulations, at least.
Whether you’ll convince a Kentuckian is another story. According to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, “only the Bluegrass State has the perfect natural mix of climate, conditions and pure limestone water necessary for producing the world’s greatest Bourbon.” The Kentucky climate does have a special influence, with the region’s warmer summers helping to gently accelerate the aging in the barrel (whereas in chillier Scotland, Scotch tends to age for longer, so yeah, an “Alaskan bourbon” might have trouble reaching its “peak” in any reasonable amount of time). And temperature fluctuations from warm to cool within the rick house (where Kentucky bourbon is aged) help the whiskey absorb into and out of the barrel, with that increased interaction theoretically imparting more flavor.
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So yes, there’s some reason to believe Kentucky is an (if not the only) ideal place to age bourbon. But recent, decent entries from places as far afield as Colorado, New York State, and Wyoming (boasting its own limestone aquifer) show evidence of bourbon’s production potential beyond Kentucky. Not that it’s likely to go national anytime soon. Kentucky is currently responsible for about 95% of all bourbon production (which, in 2014, clocked in at 1.3 million barrels, the highest output since 1970). A certain amount of territorial identity is in order, not to mention embedded into our collective cultural concept of “damn good bourbon.” But it’s a spiritual identity, not a legal one, and if bourbon lovin’ keeps on the rise, with shortages (maybe?) looming, Kentucky may be challenged by still more nationwide competitors looking to char some barrels and cash in on our whiskey thirst.
*Another point of confusion is “Tennessee whiskey,” which is basically made along the same exact lines of bourbon but often subjected to a charcoal filtration process, in theory resulting in a smoother finished product. Tennessee whiskey, however, must be made in Tennessee.