‘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!
I may have already stirred up a hornet’s nest with the title! With only 4% of Californian wine production, Napa provided 27% of economic impact. One of the smallest ‘world class’ wine regions of the world, Napa is 8 kms broad and 48 kms long and around 58 kms from the coast. The highest vineyard areas like the Howell Mountain are around 750m above sea level; however 85% of the plantation is on the valley floor. 45000 acres in all which is 1/6th of that of Bordeaux! The tipping point for the Napa or the American wine industry came in with one historic event on 24th May 1976 wherein Californian reds and whites were pitched against top Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and the American trounced in both reds and whites; Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Red and Chateau Montelena with its Chardonnay. I was fortunate to partake in their 40th anniversary celebration week, of course with tasting of their winner blend.
What makes Napa Special?
Cabernet Sauvignon it is, Cabernet forms 12% of California’s production but 40% of Napa’s and yielding 55% revenues. The others are Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Petite-Sirah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir. Needless to say the soils and the diversity play a role in the final nuance of the wines, it is also the weather. Napa has a Mediterranean climate, less than 2% of the world land mass has it where most of the rain occurs in winter giving it a dry warm growing season with diurnal temperature shifts leading to big and bold grapes. After all of these nature’s endowments the onus thoroughly lies on the keeper’s of the industry to come together make wine which is consistent and high in quality and Napa vintners are just managing to do that. Lastly, the role of wine tourism and hospitality in the regions as a subset of marketing can’t be ignored one bit. As Robert Mondavi once said, ‘We want to raise the art of living well.’ Try booking a room in Napa and you shall know.
Napa Valley was the first AVA to be recognized in California in 1981 and since then 16 nested AVAs have been identified. The Northern most Calistoga, Diamond and Spring mountain districts and the Howell mountains, Rutherford, Oakville and St Helena on the valley floor and Chiles valley district up in the Vaca ranges. And further South are the Yountville, Stag’s Leap District and the Oak Knoll regions. The Mt Vedeer, Atlas Peak lie in the Mayacamas and the Vaca ranges respectively. Coombvilles, Tiny Wild Horse Valley and Los Carneros lie in the southern reaches, the Carneros regions also extends in to Sonoma and is known for its Pinot Noirs due to the Maritime influence. The AVAs define regions but unlike the European PDO’s they give a free hand to the winery to express creativity and experiment. For instance The Paraduxx, a Zinfandel blend in 1994 from Duckhorn vineyards a Merlot powerhouse created quite a stir. Proprietary red wine they call it.
150 years of Napa Valley
Napa just like Sonoma was established much later than its southern Californian neighbours. George Yount, founder of the Yountville a town now in Napa city was the first to plant commercial vineyards in late 1830s, It was only after the independence of California from Mexico in 1850 and the Gold Rush during the same period that saw San Francisco’s population surge from a meager 200 in 1846 to 36000 by 1852 thus bringing in wine know-how. The first renaissance came when the vintners got Vitis vinifera vines in the 1860s, until then they were mission vines used by missionaries to make wine for the church. Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in 1861; the same was bought by the Mondavi family in 1943. The rail connection then helped Napa ship wines out to Francisco and help get tourists to Napa. You must have heard of Napa Valley wine train as a must do when in Napa!! The industry prospered and evolved. Gustave Niebaum a wealthy Finnish trader in 1879 opened Inglenook a French Chateau style winery and was the first to sell wine in bottles. Inglenook wines attracted global attention and put Napa on the global map for the first time. The same era Crabb planted 400 grape varieties in the famous To Kalon (means ‘the beautiful’ in Greek) vineyards, today parts of the same are owned by Robert Mondavi winery, Opus One and a wine grower Andy Beckstoffer.
Phylloxera, Earthquake, the Volstead act, the great depression, world war …..
First phylloxera decimated Napa completely by the 1890s and any hope of recovery was only thrashed by the San Francisco earthquake which destroyed 30 Mn gallons of wine and then the Volstead act eased the last nail in the coffin , brought in the American prohibition which lasted till 1933. The convalescence was during depression and then the world war kept Napa bed-ridden. During this time some wine cos continued the show some with Wine Bricks during prohibition and some by pioneering initiatives post repeal. Mondavi, George Latour of Beaulieu vineyards and John Daniel of Inglenook led the pack as they formed the Napa Valley association in 1944.
Mondavi, Judgment of Paris ……
In 1965 Robert Mondavi moved away from the family biz to start his own the Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville and ever since he made attention grabbing wines and moreover his marketing techniques, his cellar door hospitality etc made Mondavi the face of California. It only took the aforementioned tasting in Paris also made into a movie, the Bottle Shock to drive home the point for Napa. There has been no looking back for Napa ever since as they stand at over 500 wineries most of which are family owned and producing fewer than 10000 cases per annum.
Napa is an hour’s drive up north from San Francisco and if you are an oenophile then you better not miss it and the other way of looking at it as American political commentator and comedian Bill Maher puts it ‘New Rule: The Napa Valley is Disneyland for alcoholics. Be honest, you're not visiting wineries in four days because you're an oenophile, you're doing it because you're a drunk. It's the only place in America where you can pass out in a stranger's house and it's okay, because it's a B&B and you paid for it.’
‘All the Gold in California ‘ sang the Gatlin bros in 1979, it was the time when American wines were seeing a renaissance and garnering global confidence with California leading the way just like it does today. With 90% of US wine production and 90% of US wine exports California is a goldmine contributing over $25 bn in retail sales in the US only, whilst capturing a 60% market share which include foreign and other domestic wines.
California – Back in time.
With 49 of 58 counties growing grapes, 231000 hectares of vineyards, 4100 wineries, wine is certainly a statewide industry for California. It all started in the 1700s when the Spanish missionaries began growing grapes and making wines for religious services in Southern California and slowly it stretched along the coast northwards till Sonoma. In the 1830’s first Sonoma and then Napa, two top regions of the US wine scene began making wines. 1857 saw the opening of Beuna Vista in Sonoma and 1861 Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in Napa. The historic Gold rush led to a 150% growth in vineyard area , it was a result of immigration which in turn got in wine expertise. America was drinking all the way to the 1900’s until prohibition struck and California lost 94% of its vineyards.
Resurrection began in 1933 post repeal and E&J Gallo, the world’s largest winery today set shop then. The next few decades the industry limped but moved up. Only in the 60’s that it gathered pace as stalwarts like Robert Mondavi showed confidence in the industry and opened a winery in Napa, the first major one to open post prohibition. He led by example and endeavored to name wines by grape varietals which became a new world norm and his oaked Sauvignon blanc which he called the Fume Blanc (smoked white) became synonymous for a Sauvignon.
Quality wine making had arrived in California and it showed in the momentous ‘Judgment of Paris’. The increased demand 1980s and 90s saw push for quality and of course the number of wineries grew at a rapid pace. In a bid to take control the US government demarcated 50 areas as American Viticultural Area (AVA) based on growing conditions, soil and history. Today there are around 230 AVA’s in the US and around 136 in California. The turn of the millennium saw mushrooming of wineries, from 1000 in late nineties to around 4100 as of today in California and it produces 250 million 9 liter cases of wine.
California – Geography
With a 1300 km coastline, California boasts of one of the longest coastlines of the world adjacent to a wine growing region. This proximity to the sea is what makes the region special. The cool oceanic breeze helps to cool the inland regions and this influence can well be seen over 25 kms inland, as result the nights are cool and the morning warm thus extending the ripening seasons and yielding good quality fruit. The warm inland air meeting the ocean breeze is also responsible for the fog which covers many of the regions including the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Broadly California is divided into 6 macro-growing regions and they are further broken up into AVAs. Below are the 6 regions with some popular AVA’s they comprise
North Coast (54 AVAs)
Mendocino County, Los Carneros, Napa Valley (18 AVAs), Sonoma County (18 AVAs)
Central Coast (41 AVAs)
Livermore Valley, Paso Robles, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara (of Sideways fame), San Francisco Bay
Southern California (11 AVAs)
Los Angeles, San Diego, Temecula, Malibu Coast
Inland Valleys (18 AVAs)
Lodi the most famous of the regions and is the fastest growing in the state. It is known for its Zinfandel.
Sierra Foothills (6 AVAs)
Situated inland the region was the epicenter of the Gold Rush. The El Dorado county is known for its Old Vine Zinfandel.
The northern most region, home to the ‘Lost Coast’. Manton Valley is one of the better known sub-areas.
Wine styles and grapes
California is endowed with 2800 different soil types and varied geography comprising mountains, valleys, deserts, and coasts, and this allows a myriad grape varieties and wine styles. California grows around 110 different grape varieties. In reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir lead the pack with Zinfandel being their signature red. In white the kind of whites, Chardonnay rules the roost followed by a surprise, Pinot Grigio and then the Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling and Moscato are gaining feet well too. If you were to stereotype Californian wines, they stand for big and bold reds, opulent and tropical whites and lush and perfumed roses.
California is the heart of America’s wine, so if you are anywhere in California you know you are close to wines. I was one of the 21 million tourists who visit Californian wine country each year, I ended up Happy High. As late Mr. Robert Mondavi declared, ‘Wine has been a part of civilized life for some seven thousand years. It is the only beverage that feeds the body, soul and spirit of man and at the same time stimulates the mind.’