BreakingModern — Anyway you look at it, there can be no dispute: Bourbon whiskey is about as popular as popular can get right now. According to a February 2014 article in Fortune, domestic whiskey sales increased 40 percent in the previous five years and international exports now surpass $1 billion. And bourbon whiskey is the cool kids’ drink of choice.
What Makes Whiskey a Bourbon?
One of the most interesting things about bourbon whiskey is the fact that its ingredients and method of distillation are codified in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations by the U.S. Government. To be identified as bourbon whiskey, a distilled spirit must meet these conditions:
- Produced in the United States
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80 percent alcohol by volume)
- Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol by volume)
- Bottled at 80 proof or more (40 percent alcohol by volume)
As you can see, that’s a pretty specific set of conditions. The key factor that separates bourbon whiskey from other whiskies is the high level of corn. The corn, in conjunction with charred oak barrels and aging, is what gives bourbon its distinctive flavor.
In addition to the specific requirements we’ve already outlined, the most-marked aspect that makes bourbon legitimate is the aging process. To be identified as “straight bourbon,” a distilled spirit has to be aged in the charred oak barrel for at least two years. During the aging process, the spirits interact with the char, drawing alcohol soluble compounds out of the wood. This step is what gives bourbon that satisfying flavor complexity and the telltale caramel color.
Aging, along with some other distilling magic (like alcohol content) is how one bourbon producer distinguishes its bourbon from another producer. Generally speaking, the longer a bourbon ages, the more complex the flavor will be. Knowing how long to age a bourbon lies at the heart of the art that is bourbon distilling.
Aging is also the reason why a bourbon like Pappy Van Winkle, which is aged up to 23 years, can fetch upwards of $2,300 per bottle, assuming you can find it. However, it’s more common for bourbon whiskey to be aged for four to eight years. One of my favorite bourbon brands is Maker’s Mark, which is aged for six years. As you look for your favorite, just remember that more aging generally means more flavorful bourbon.
On the Trail
I can’t go into all of the complexities of bourbon production in this space, but I can suggest a fun way to learn all about the process. Thanks to Reverend Elijah Craig, Kentucky is the acknowledged birthplace of bourbon whiskey. It’s part of the state’s culture, and bourbon is embraced as an integral part of its history. So the citizens of Kentucky have created The Bourbon Trail, which tells the definitive story of bourbon. While the website contains some good solid history, to really experience bourbon, I suggest you plan a trip to Kentucky and travel the trail yourself.
As a born and bred Kentuckian, bourbon whiskey has always been a part of my life. My father owned and worked a bar in Louisville for years. After that he ran a package liquor store. I knew the pleasures of drinking bourbon whiskey long before this most recent upsurge in popularity. Bourbon is uniquely American, rich in history and deserving of its current popularity. If you haven’t, you really should give it a try.
I prefer my bourbon on the rocks, but if someone offered me some Pappy Van Winkle, I would take it neat. What is your favorite bourbon and how do you serve it?