Bourbon Whiskey

Pappy Van Winkle

Bourbon [boor-buhn] whiskey is a type of American whiskey, a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name is ultimately derived from the French Bourbon dynasty, although it is unclear precisely what inspired the whiskey’s name (contenders include Bourbon County in Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans).

Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century. The use of the term ‘bourbon’ for the whiskey has been traced to the 1820s, and the term began to be used consistently in Kentucky in the 1870s. While bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with the American South, and with Kentucky in particular.

The origin of bourbon is not well documented. There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others. For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller credited with many Kentucky firsts (e.g., fulling mill, paper mill, ropewalk) who is also said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process which gives bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste. Across the county line in Bourbon County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product as Bourbon whiskey.

Although still popular and often repeated, the Craig legend is apocryphal. Similarly, the Spears story is a local favorite, rarely repeated outside the county. There likely was no single inventor of bourbon, which developed into its present form only in the late 19th century. Essentially any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey and charring the barrels for better flavor had also been known in Europe for centuries. The late date of the Bourbon County etymology has led Louisville historian Michael Veach to dispute its authenticity. He proposes that the whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port where shipments of Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac.

Distilling probably was brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including English, Irish, Welsh, German and French) who began to farm the area in earnest. The spirit they made evolved, and became known as bourbon in the early 19th century due to its historical association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon (this consisted of the original Bourbon County of Virginia as organized in 1785, a region that included much of today’s Eastern Kentucky). This area included the current Bourbon County of Kentucky, which became a county of Kentucky when Kentucky was separated from Virginia as a new state in 1792.

When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region ‘Old Bourbon.’ Located within ‘Old Bourbon’ was the principal port on the Ohio River, Maysville, Kentucky, from which whiskey and other products were shipped. ‘Old Bourbon’ was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

Although many distilleries operated in Bourbon County historically, there were no distilleries operating there between 1919, when Prohibition began in Kentucky, and late 2014, when a small distillery opened – a period of 95 years. A refinement often dubiously credited to James C. Crow was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation is conditioned with some amount of spent mash. Mash is a mix of mix of milled grain and water. Spent mash is also known as ‘spent beer,’ ‘distillers’ spent grain,’ ‘stillage,’ and ‘slop’ or ‘feed mash,’ so named because it is used as animal feed. The process is named ‘sour mashing’ in reference to the process of making sourdough bread with a starter. The acid introduced by using the sour mash controls the growth of bacteria that could taint the whiskey and creates a proper pH balance for the yeast to work. Iron-free water that has been filtered through the high concentrations of limestone, unique to the area, is also often touted by bourbon distillers in Kentucky as a signature step in the bourbon-making process.

A concurrent resolution adopted by the United States Congress in 1964 declared bourbon to be a ‘distinctive product of the United States.’ In recent years, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey (which is sometimes regarded as a different type of spirit but which generally meets the legal requirements for being called bourbon) have enjoyed significant growth and popularity. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the industry trade group, tracks sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey together.

Bardstown, Kentucky is home to the annual Bourbon Festival held each September. It has been called the ‘Bourbon Capital of the World.’ The ‘Kentucky Bourbon Trail’ is the name of a tourism promotion program organized by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and aimed at attracting visitors to the distilleries in Kentucky, primarily including Four Roses (Lawrenceburg), Heaven Hill (Bardstown), Jim Beam (Clermont), Maker’s Mark (Loretto), Town Branch (Lexington), Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg), and Woodford Reserve (Versailles).

Tennessee is home to other major bourbon makers, though most prefer to call their product ‘Tennessee whiskey’ instead, including giant Jack Daniel’s. Although some Tennessee whiskey makers maintain a state mandated pre-ageing filtration through chunks of maple charcoal known as the ‘Lincoln County Process’ makes its flavor distinct from bourbon, U.S. regulations defining bourbon neither require nor prohibit its use.

To be legally sold as bourbon the whiskey’s mash bill requires a minimum of 51% corn, with the remainder being rye, wheat, malted barley, singly or in any combination. A mash bill that contains wheat instead of rye produces what is known as a ‘wheated bourbon.’ After distillation, the resulting clear spirit, called ‘white dog,’ is placed in newly charred American white oak barrels for aging, during which it gains color and flavor from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. Changes to the spirit also occur due to evaporation and chemical processes such as oxidation. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they age in wood. Maturity, not a particular duration, is the goal, as bourbons aged too long can become woody and unbalanced.

2 Comments to “Bourbon Whiskey”

  1. Excellent post. Well done.

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