Bourbon, America’s Native Spirit
Bourbon; it looks like other whiskeys, even tastes similar to other whiskeys, but what makes a bourbon a bourbon?
Well, to start off, it is indeed a whiskey. Bourbon is “America’s Whiskey”, and all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. If you’re still following me, let’s get more into what that means exactly.
The Top Selling U.S. Liquor of 1963
After Prohibition and World War II, the 1950s saw a surge in Kentucky bourbon. In 1963, bourbon was the highest sold spirit, with numerous brands producing 75 million gallons of brown-tinted goodness, and in 1964, Congress designated bourbon in H. Con. Res. 57 as a “distinctive product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether imported or domestic”. As such, Congress set forth the requirements for what classifies this particular kind of whiskey as a bourbon.
1) It must be made in America.
2) Must have 51% corn in its mash bill.
3) Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
4) Must be distilled at 160 proof, or 80% ABV
5) After distilling, must enter the new, charred oak barrel at 125 proof or less.
6) Be then bottled at no less than 80 proof, or 40% ABV.
Kentucky, the Land of Bourbon
The name “bourbon” comes from Old Bourbon, now Bourbon County, KY. Contrary to popular belief, Bourbon does not necessarily need to come from Kentucky.... but it is likely that it does. Bourbon can technically be made in any state within the U.S., but to be designated a true “Kentucky bourbon”, it must be distilled and aged in that particular state. Most bourbon is made in Kentucky, hence becoming synonymous with the spirit, much like the Champagne region in France is to champagne - although sparkling wines are also made elsewhere. One great example of this is Jack Daniel’s. While it is technically a bourbon in every way, it’s called a Tennessee whiskey because it is not made in Kentucky.
Designations for Each Drop
If you’ve taken a look at some bottles of bourbon, you may have noticed terms such as “straight”, “bottled in bond”, “single barrel”, or “small batch”. Let’s go over what those mean.
“Straight whiskey”, according to The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 http://www.gobourbon.com/the-taft-decision/ , must be distilled from a fermented cereal grain mash, cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof, must be aged for 2 years at minimum, and must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof. To bring the proof down, only water can be added to the distillate. When that designation comes to “straight bourbon whiskey”, the spirit must hit all of the above requirements - and you guessed it - all of the requirements for a bourbon, as designated in H. Con. Res. 57 of 1964. You’ll notice that a lot of these points are the same, and that is because bourbon wasn’t officially “bourbon” until many decades after the straight whiskey designation.
“Bottled in bond” comes as a part of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. This was one of the first consumer protection laws passed, and was put into place in order to guarantee that the product being purchased was actually bona fide whiskey, according to its standardized definition. The act requires that the spirit must be the product of one distillation season, produced of the skill of one distiller, and the work of one distillery. It must be bottled and stored in bonded warehouses under government supervision for no less than 4 years. In the early days, having the bottled in bond tax strip was a seal of trust in the eyes of the consumer. Some barrels of whiskey delivered to saloons during the frontier days would be cut with all manner of things, including prune juice, neutral grains, spittoon waste, rattlesnake heads, turpentine, sugar, iodine, fuse oil, or if you were lucky, just plain water. Talk about the Wild West, amirite?
“Small batch” and “single barrel” can be confusing, and sometimes get intermingled as the same thing. After being distilled, whiskey is moved into those new, charred oak barrels to become bourbon. Not every barrel is the same, and this is where “single barrel” comes in to play. Specially selected barrels that may have exceptional flavor notes are bottled separately, and not mingled with the spirit of other barrels. “Small batch” gets a bit less clear, since there are no regulations on what really determines a small batch bourbon. This could mean that a distillery mingles 5-10 barrels to achieve the desired flavor profile, or it could mean that they’ve mingled 200 barrels. Basically, a small batch is the culmination of a select number of barrels that are mixed together to create the desired taste.
Well, now you’re an expert on bourbon whiskey, so go ahead and crack open a bottle and enjoy the craftsmanship and history that comes with each and every sip - and the fact that you don’t have to risk having yours infused with rattlesnake heads! If you’re looking for some great spirit and cigar pairings, check out our selection of available Tasting Packages, and don’t hesitate to give us a call if you need advice for your collection!