Bourbon is the American spirit. It’s the only American spirit recognized by Federal law. Like all whiskeys, Bourbon is blended from different fermented grains, but the primary grain is corn. While bourbon has been produced since the 18th century, production exploded in the early 1800’s as pioneers used the newly discovered and vast grain resources of the Ohio and Monongahela Valleys for their liquor. Bourbon “was” the new frontier. It is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, which became the geographic heart of bourbon stilling.
In 1964, the US Congress recognized Bourbon’s distinct place in American history by passing a law protecting its status, manufacture and trade. To be labeled bourbon, and to be recognized by law as the true American spirit, the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon must meet the following requirements:
- Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
- Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels with no coloring added.
Almost all bourbons made today consist of at least two-thirds corn mash and have been aged at least four years. The typical grain mixture for bourbon, known as the mash bill, consists of 70% corn with the remainder made up of wheat, rye, and barley.
The process is relatively simple. The grain is ground and mashed in water. Yeast is added, which eat the grain sugars, releasing carbon dioxide (it escapes) and alcohol (it does not.) The fermented mash is then heated, steamed and condensed (distilled) to between 65% and 80% alcohol (130 to 160 proof!) What started as 100% mash flavored water is now mostly alcohol.
The resulting spirit is clear (moonshine, “corn liquor,” etc.) The spirit is placed in charred oak barrels for aging, where it gains color and flavor from the wood. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they age. Maturity, not a particular age, is the goal. It is the Master Distiller’s job to recognize mature bourbon. They do so by sight, smell and taste. After aging, bourbon is withdrawn from the barrel and usually diluted with spring water and bottled to at least 80 US proof or 40% alcohol by volume. Most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 US proof. Some higher proofs are labeled as “barrel proof,” meaning that they have not been diluted after removal from the barrels. These are the strongest “cuts,” from the smallest batches. These are my “Nines.”
My “Nines” are on par with the finest spirits in the world. Enjoy them slowly with three cubes of ice and a friend. Savor the true spirit of America’s heritage as the complex aromas and flavors of caramel, tobacco, fruit and wood unwind on your palette. Nothing is better with barbeque and buddies than great bourbon. Cheers!