National Bourbon Day is June 14. Since an Act of Congress in 1964, Bourbon has been designated “America’s Native Spirit.”
Bourbon is a whiskey, made from at least 51% corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Federal standards dictate that it may be distilled to no more than 160 proof, entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at 80 proof or more. Ninety five percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, although a Kentucky pedigree is not a requirement. It must, however, be produced in the United States.
Bourbon begins as a mash bill consisting of at least 51% corn, with the rest being small grains such as wheat, rye or barley. The grains are ground and mixed with water and yeast. After the mash has fermented to the “wash,” it is distilled to produce spirit consisting of 65% to 80% alcohol. The spirits are then stored in new charred oak barrels for aging.
The aging process is what gives bourbon its distinctive color and flavor. As the seasons and temperatures change, the spirits are absorbed into, and pushed out of the wood of the barrel, picking up flavors from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. Evaporation and oxidation also take place. Bourbon barrels will be rotated vertically throughout the storage barns to ensure even aging.
After reaching maturity, the bourbons are usually diluted with water and bottled to 80 proof. The barrels, which cannot be reused, may contain as much as 20 pounds of bourbon within the wood—the infamous “Devil’s Cut.” Although this can potentially be extracted, the barrels are generally simply sold to the Scots for aging their Scotch.
Bourbon’s origins are murky. One legend says that it was invented by Elijah Craig in the late 1700s. Another tale credits Jacob Spears, a distiller in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Still another story says that it actually was created and named in New Orleans and is named after the famous Bourbon Street. In any case, Kentucky’s position as the epicenter of the industry surely lies in the large Scots-Irish who settled there, with their knowledge of — and fondness for — distilling whiskey.
Bourbon has in recent years experienced a surge in popularity. In 2014, Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey (which are tracked together) accounted for some $2.7 billion in sales, according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council.
While bourbon is a great served neat or on the rocks, it’s also a staple of some terrific cocktails. The Whiskey Sour, Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Mint Julep all favor bourbon.
A Whiskey Sour made with bourbon may just be my favorite.