A Bourbon Biography
Bourbon, the most famous of American whiskey styles, has been around for over two centuries. Bourbon was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky. The roots of it’s name either came from its home or from its sweeping popularity on Bourbon Street, New Orleans; no one is entirely sure. Bourbons flavor is sweet and distinctive deriving from its key ingredient corn. This makes Bourbon an outlier compared to other American whiskeys originating from further north that were made from rye and other grains.
The Rules of Bourbon
All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. This is the first rule of bourbon. Whiskey specifically refers to a spirit made from grain and aged in wooden barrels, but bourbon has a few more requirements and specifications for its production. These are:
- Produced in the USA
- Corn must be the dominant grain in the mash bill, at least 51%
- Distilled to no higher than 160 proof (80% alcohol)
- Entered into the barrel for aging at no less than 125 proof (62.5%)
- Bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol)
- Aged in brand new, charred oak barrels
- Aged for at least two years, and anything less than four years must be stated on the label
Unbeknown to many, bourbon whiskey can be made anywhere in the USA, it is not required to come from Bourbon County, Kentucky. (Unlike the relationship between Champagne and Champagne, France.) Many bourbons use the sour mash process to ensure consistency across all their batches, with the acid in the old sour mash regulating the growth of any bacteria in the new. Contrary to popular belief, this does not give whiskey a sour flavor.
Bourbon in Cocktails
There are some classic cocktails which traditionally call for bourbon, and many more in which the whiskey choice is optional. The Old Fashioned is considered the original cocktail, always call for bourbon. From the pre-prohibition period of cocktail history, there are the Whiskey Sour and the Mint Julep which also demand bourbon. This period additionally gave us the Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Whiskey Smash which don’t specifically call for bourbon. (But that’s how I prefer them.)
Prohibition essentially killed off the bourbon industry, with only a few distilleries allowed to stay open for “medical purposes”. With Americans traveling abroad to the likes of Cuba, Mexico, and Europe they left their beloved American whiskeys behind, trading them out for the likes of rum, gin, vodka, and brandy. Once prohibition ended Americans brought these other spirits home with them and bourbon remained on the back bar for a while.
It took a while for America’s love of bourbon to be rekindled, still many classic bourbon cocktails such as Remember The Maine, the Revolver, and the Boulevardier have emerged over the last 80 years. Bourbons popularity in cocktails like the Hot Toddy, versions of the Irish Coffee, and the Rickey have also been increasing over the last 20 years. The overall popularity of the spirit itself has been increasing though the years.
A Last Word
Bourbon is currently booming and small-batch distilleries, single barrel editions, and special releases are becoming more and more common. This maturing of the industry and rising demand for bourbon gives bartenders the chance the showcase different flavors of this excellent and all-American spirit. It is, however, said that you shouldn’t mess with bourbon too much and that the flavors of the whiskey should always shine through. It’s important to drink responsibly, but whether you drink responsibly on ice or neat is left up to you.