Kentucky Bourbon is probably just as famous as Tennessee Whiskey worldwide but, unlike it, it isn’t an official brand but more of a generally-agreed proof of quality as, although it can officially be made anywhere in the US, it’s usually associated with the South and, especially with Kentucky. The main reason for that is history but also the fact that even today, most bourbon distilleries are still in the state of Kentucky. According to USA Today, as of this year, approximately 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and the state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon that are currently aging – a figure that exceeds the state population.
The history of bourbon probably has just as many versions as distilleries. It’s generally thought that it began in the 1700s with the first European settlers in the area. Since, essentially, any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey, and even charring the barrels for better flavor, had also been known in Europe for centuries, the use of the local American corn for the mash and oak for the barrels was simply a logical combination of the materials at hand for the settlers. Like most farmers in that time, they discovered that turning their corn and grains into whiskey made it a lot easier for them to make a profit, than having to struggle with transporting their crops to the market, because of the rough landscape. Back when Kentucky was still part of Virginia, in the late 18th century, some of its original counties formed Bourbon County, named to honor the French Royal Family. Farmers made liquor in copper stills, then stamped their oak barrels with “Bourbon County” and shipped their whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The long trip, allegedly, aged the whiskey and the oak gave it its distinct mellow flavor and amber color. As the whiskey from the region became more and more popular, it was already known as Bourbon whiskey. An alternative origin for the name was offered by a historian who suggested it actually came from Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, where the Tarascon brothers' shipments of Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac. In 1964, the 88th Congress of the United States declared Bourbon Whiskey ‘a distinctive product of the United States’.
The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits is the regulator which states that to be labeled as bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the US, from a mixture of at least 51% corn. Different distilleries use different recipes, some use more corn, some add rye, barley, wheat and other grains, but the minimum 51% corn is non-negotiable. When bourbon leaves the whiskey still, it cannot exceed 160 proof and it needs to be no more than 125 proof when it’s put inside the barrel. It’s also general practice that if it’s a higher proof, when coming out of the whiskey copper still, to be cut with water until it reaches 125 proof. But the watering down has to be done carefully and professionally, as Maker's Mark found out the hard way earlier this year, when it tried to ‘stretch supplies’ of its flagship spirit by lowering alcohol content and adding extra water. Their announcement was followed by a wave of complaints and so, within a few days, they came out with a statement cancelling the plan.
When bottled, all bourbons must be at least 80 proof although, some distillers we met on the trail said many exceed this requirement and it’s common to find bourbon whiskeys anywhere between 90-127 proof. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels and cannot have any artificial colorings or additives. This also includes natural coloring agents like caramel, which can be used in other types of whiskey.
Kentucky distillers say it’s the sweet, iron-free water that has been filtered through the high concentrations of limestone, unique to the area, which give Kentucky bourbon its unique flavor.
As distillers agree that 40-70% of the flavor comes from the wood, the barrel is a central point for the taste and quality of the product. After leaving the whiskey still, the spirit gets its color and distinct flavor from the caramelized sugar in the charred oak. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they mature. Maturity, not a particular age, is the goal. Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period so you can find products aged for as little as three months that are sold as bourbon. Bourbon that has been aged for a minimum of two years qualifies as straight, but if it’s less than four years, the duration of aging must be stated on the label. Blended bourbon has to be at least 51% straight bourbon.
A refinement which came with time was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation process was conditioned with some amount of spent mash (the wet solids strained from a previous batch of fermented mash, which still contain live yeast). As of 2005, all straight bourbons use a sour mash process.
As with every whiskey, although there are strict regulations producers need to follow to meet the requirements, each distiller needs to add that extra something to make their bourbon different. Many make the difference in the mash, as the grain combination added on top of the corn adds to the flavor palette: barley can add a bit of a nutty tinge, rye makes it spicier and wheat adds softer, caramel and vanilla aromas. Four Roses claims to be the only Bourbon Distillery that combines 5 proprietary yeast strains with two separate mashbills to produce 10 distinct bourbon recipes. Woodford Reserve produce twice-barreled bourbon, matured in separate, charred oak barrels - the second barrel deeply toasted before a light charring – to ‘extract additional amounts of soft, sweet oak character’. It’s also Woodford Reserve who uses the only copper pot still and triple distillation process used to handcraft Bourbon. Maker’s Mark claim they are the only distillery in the world to hand rotate barrels in their warehouses to ensure flavor consistency, while Wild Turkey distil at a lower proof – which is meant to seal in the taste, and makes it possible to add very little water when the bourbon comes out of the warehouse.
Most Kentucky bourbon distilleries take pride in still being family businesses, some of them, like Jim Beam with an impressive history of generations of distillers. They also try to set themselves apart by using high quality ingredients, longer ageing periods, special yeast strains and a wider offer.
And, as I said before, trying all the different types made me realize that, even within fairly tight restrictions, you can easily get different flavors, strengths and degrees of refinement. I’ve collected a few interesting recipes on the trail and I can’t wait to try them in my very own handcrafted copper whiskey still.
Posted by Jason Stone on