The bourbon boom is in full swing across America, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Louisville. Just about every event we have involves bourbon in some respect. You can find a bourbon-themed event just about every day, but unfortunately they aren’t always staffed with bourbonites. I once asked a bartender what kind of bourbon she had and her response was “Five Roses or something.” At another event stocked with some impressive and rare bourbons, a patron asked what the highest proof bourbon was and the bartender responded she would have to ask. I scanned the lineup and said it was definitely Bookers, the only barrel-proof bourbon they had in their lineup. You might think this makes me some sort of bourbon genius, but I’m just a dedicated Louisvillian determined to make my city proud. There are many others out there with far more bourbon knowledge than I, and I consider myself very lucky to be able to learn from them. But as a dedicated Louisvillian, there are a few things you simply must know about bourbon as your duty to our fair city.
- Bourbon was (mostly) invented in Kentucky, and the bourbon industry was definitely invented in Louisville. Crops grew easily in the fertile Kentucky soil, but they weren’t always easy to store or transport. Early Kentuckians fermented and distilled their crops and then stored them in oak barrels that had been charred on the inside. The name “bourbon” is said to come either from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where early versions of the spirit were distilled, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where most of the product that left Kentucky ended up. According to legend, the first commercial distillery in the state was owned by Evan Williams, a prominent Louisvillian.
- Bourbon has to be made with a specific mash bill in order to be called bourbon. While bourbon’s mash bill is required by law to have at least 51% corn, many bourbons have much higher corn contents. The other parts of the mash bill consist of malted barley and either wheat or rye.
- It is important to know which type of bourbon you like best. Wheated bourbons, like Maker’s Mark, are generally sweeter and softer and appeal even to those who don’t drink bourbon regularly. Bourbons with rye mash bills are spicier as well as more common.
- After the mash is brewed and distilled, the juice must go into a new charred oak barrel to age. While there is no legal age requirement to be called bourbon, straight bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years and the age statement must be on the bottle if it is aged less than four years. Barrels cannot be reused for bourbon.
- The age statement on the bottle represents the youngest bourbon in the blend, though there may be older barrels in there. If the age statement says ten years, the youngest barrel in the bottle must be a minimum of ten years and one day.
- If it has added flavor, it can’t be called bourbon. There’s often confusion about this because spirits laws are so complex, but according to Tax and Trade Bureau regulations no flavors are allowed in anything labeled “bourbon” or “straight bourbon”. If your bottle says “bourbon with” it’s not bourbon. If your bottle says “blended bourbon” it only has to be 51% bourbon and anything else goes. Just step away.
- Bourbon must be made in America. Congress passed a law in 1964 stating that “Bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States.” Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. However, we do produce 95% of the world’s bourbon and we definitely do it better than anyone else.
- The spelling of whiskey versus whisky usually denotes the origin of the product. Kentucky bourbon whiskey is generally spelled with an –ey, though Margie Samuels of Maker’s Mark specifically chose the Scottish whisky spelling to honor the family’s Scottish heritage. Generally speaking, whiskey with an –ey is either American or Irish. Everything else is whisky. (Bonus facts: the plural of whiskey is whiskeys, while the plural of whisky is whiskies.)
- Barrels aged higher up in the rick house have higher proofs. Barrels aged closer to the ground have lower proofs. Barrels from the top and bottom of the rick house are usually blended together to get every batch just right. Barrel proof bourbon is usually the highest proof item on the shelf since it doesn’t get blended with water.
- Kentucky is the most perfect place on earth to make bourbon. The limestone filtered water, hot summers, and cold winters all come together to make the best bourbon on earth. And the generations of bourbon making families that call Kentucky home don’t hurt things, either.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl