‘This Father’s Day the perfect gift for your dad is whisky’ would be one of the many ads that might pop on your social pages. I am sure that one’s whisky loving father is happy anytime you get him a bottle of liquid sunshine. Moreover many even would like the same brand over years! So this Father’s day why don’t you help him open his horizons and get him know more about whisky, a different elixir with a different history, the Bourbon. Perhaps this will stay with him longer than that bottle of whisky …
Bourbon whisky was named after the Bourbon, one of the original counties of Kentucky when the latter was still a part of Virginia. The early settlers in the 1700s, the Scots, Northern Irish, the Germans and the Americans from the east (who were used to rye) quickly understood the positives of producing a spirit based out the native-corn considering corn was in plenty and difficult to transport due to bulk. This corn spirit transported in wooden barrels down the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans aged during the voyage and was appreciated at the final destination and began to be called the ‘Bourbon Whisky’. In the 1780s Reverend Elijah Craig; the father of Bourbon whiskey took a step further to char the barrels from inside which today is responsible for the distinctive nose and color of a Bourbon. Now why did he char it has its own line-up of lore. Bourbon is now recognized or believed to be the only ‘native American spirit’ and can be made anywhere in the United States.
Now what does it take to be a Bourbon!
Minimum 51% corn
The Mash bill as they call it is the proportion of grains the distiller uses to make the whisky. To be called Bourbon the whiskey has to contain at least 51% corn. Different distillers would adjust the mash bill based on the nuances they wish to achieve. For example the Woodford Reserve uses 18% Rye in its blend which lends spicier notes to the finished product and in Bulleit it is 28% which make it spicier. The other grain used is Barley and some Bourbon distilleries are tried their hand at malt whiskies too.
Aged in charred new oak barrels
‘Straight’ is the word you need to look for on the label. When it says straight Bourbon it has to age for a minimum of 2 yrs in charred new American oak barrels and it can just go in for a day for it to be called only Bourbon. Bulleit has no age statement but is typically aged between 6-8 yrs and so is Buffalo trace for the same average period. Some distilleries also experiment with different oak influences like the Maker’s Mark 46 which sees French Oak Staves for that French elegance.
Whilst Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, 95% of it comes from Kentucky. The iron free water which is rich in calcium and magnesium is most preferred for distillation and that has kept the industry flourishing over the last 200 years. Jack Daniel’s, you finally hear it! JD is a Tennessee whisky which starts its life as Bourbon and then undergoes a process of Maple Charcoal filtration also called the Lincoln County process which finally renders it to be a Tennessee whiskey. To be a Tennessee it has to be made in Tennessee unlike bourbon. So JD is not a Bourbon!
To be termed Bourbon it has to be bottled at more than 40% alcoholic strength and can go into the barrel at no more than 62.5%. This lower strength of alcohol while going into the barrel is to ensuring slow and steady aging than leeching of flavour with a high alcoholic spirit. The Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is bottled at 54-57% ABV (alcohol by volume)
No Caramel, No Colour!
‘Straight bourbon whiskey’ doesn’t allow the use of any additives, just water. When it says only Bourbon then it does allow a small percentage of additives to enhance the liquid.
Now all of the above being a given for bourbons, distilleries try and differentiate themselves with the shape of stills they use, pot stills in addition to a column, the location of the warehouses, years in aging and of course the water source, these contribute to the final elixir in the bottle. I will leave you with a few images from our recent Kentucky visit and some brands to lay hands on your next visit to the USA.
Pappy Van Winkle
Makers Mark 46
Woodford Double Oaked
(The last two also make fantastic Rye whiskies; I will leave them for some other day)
P.S: Use of Whisky or Whiskey is completely at your discretion. Nobody cares as long as the whiskeee is good!