Whiskies of the World: American Bourbon
Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiskies of the World; the series that teaches you about different nations’ whiskies and how they came to be. In this edition, we’re delving into the world of American whiskey, starting with what is probably America’s best known whiskey product; bourbon.
Doubtless you’ve heard the name, and chances are you’ve probably had a glass or two in your time. But do you know your high rye from your wheater? Come to think of it, what makes bourbon, well… bourbon?
Fear not intrepid whiskey drinker! As always, we’ll be getting into the nitty gritty of it all.
So, grab your trusty spirit glass and join us on a journey to where it all started… 18th century Kentucky.
With that in mind, it probably won’t surprise you to know that Scottish and Irish settlers brought the distilling of whiskey to what is now Kentucky in the late 18th century.
It’s less clear, however, when bourbon emerged as its own entity, with its own distinct characteristics. Some attribute the invention of bourbon to Elijah Craig, a Kentucky Baptist minister who was supposedly the first to age the drink in charred oak casks, a key component in the drink’s distinctive reddish color and taste.
Early distiller Jacob Spears, meanwhile, is often credited as the first person to label his product as “Bourbon whiskey” after his native Bourbon County. In recent times, however, this has been contested, with historian Michael Veach suggesting that the name bourbon came from “Bourbon Street” in New Orleans – a major port where Kentucky whiskey was sold as a cheaper alternative to cognac.
While its origins remain unclear, bourbon whiskey as we know it today was well established, and had unquestionably taken over the American spirit market by the late 19th century. In spite of taking a massive hit during the early 20th century thanks to the ratification of the 18th amendment and the introduction of prohibition, bourbon has stood the test of time in America and the global market.
Indeed, in 1964, the United States Congress adopted a resolution that declared “distinctive product of the United States” and required “the appropriate agencies of the United States Government… [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as ‘Bourbon Whiskey’.
What makes it bourbon?
As highlighted above, US law dictates that any product labeled as “bourbon whiskey” must be produced in the US. But, that’s not the only rule when it comes to the spirit. According to the Federal Standards Identity for Distilled Spirits, bourbon made for US consumption must also:
- Be made from a grain mixture containing at least 51% corn
- Be aged in new, charred oak containers
- Be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% ABV)
- Be entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
- Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% ABV) (like Scotch, Irish whisky and the majority of whiskies sold worldwide)
Unlike other whiskies, there is no minimum required duration for bourbon’s ageing period. And, as a result, products that are aged for as little as three months can be are sold as “bourbon whiskey” in the US. Outside of the States, however, different rules apply – in the EU for example, bourbon which has been aged for fewer than 3 years cannot legally be referred to as whiskey.
The only exception to the rule in the US is “straight bourbon,” which has a minimum aging requirement of two years. Unlike regular bourbon, straight bourbon cannot contain any added coloring, flavoring or other spirits.
Blended bourbons do also exist, and may contain coloring, flavoring, and other spirits. However, 51% of the product minimum must be straight bourbon for a blend to use the bourbon label.
Types of Bourbon
So we know where bourbon came from, we know what makes it bourbon, but how do we choose an agreeable bottle? The flavor of Bourbon is affected by the kinds of grain used in its production. These are some of the main distinctions:
The “mashbill” (bourbon distiller speak for “recipe”) of high rye whiskies is, as the name would suggest, high on rye – often around the 8 to 10 percent mark. These whiskies are considered the most “traditional” bourbons on the market, closer in flavor characteristics to those popularized in the late 1800s.
As a general rule, the higher the count of rye in the bottle, the bolder the flavor you get. Four Roses Single Barrel, for example, has the highest rye count of any bourbon on the market (35%) and is audaciously spicy. Bulleit, another high-rye, takes on fruity characteristics. Basil Hayden’s on the other hand, – a Jim Beam Small Batch – is on the lighter side, slightly spiced but not as full-bodied.
As you’d expect, the mashbill in high corn whiskies means an abundance of corn, somewhere in the 60%-70% range. Sometimes, such as in the case of Buffalo Trace’s Old Charter, this goes higher than 80%. The result of a higher percentage of corn is an abundant sweetness and a complex-and well balanced nose that holds both peppery and honey notes.
Finally, we come to the wheaters, which are notable for their distinctive mashbill. While most bourbons are made from a mixture of corn, rye and barley, distillers responsible for wheaters (or “wheated bourbons”) buck this trend with a mash that swaps out the rye for wheat.
The result? A softer drink that’s characterized by pronounced caramel and vanilla flavors. Maker’s Mark is undoubtedly the most famous wheater on the market, with a butterscotch sweetness and hints of spiced honey. Rebel Yell, one of the lightest wheaters out there today, is also notable for its fruit – nectarine, prune and warming apple – flavor.
So that’s it for this week’s edition. Let us know about your experiences drinking bourbon in the comments and join us next time when we sample more whiskies of the world!