Bourbon: The Basics Of What You Need To Know

What is bourbon? It is, quite simply, the quintessential American whiskey. More so then rye, single malt or any other form of this brown spirit, bourbon is at the heart and soul of drinkers all around the USA. It helps drive state economies, create hundreds of jobs and provide drinkers of all stripes a beverage to relax with at the end of a long day. It is also a liquor with a fascinating story to tell.

First, the legal definition of bourbon. That’s right, in order to be called truly bourbon a whiskey must meet certain guidelines put forth by the federal government after a 1964 Congressional resolution declared in no uncertain terms this form of whiskey to be “America’s native spirit.” To thus be qualified as such it must be domestically made from a fermented mash of grains of not less than 51 percent corn that is distilled at not more than 160 proof. It must then be barreled in new, charred oak containers (i.e. barrels) at no more than 125 proof before being bottled at no less than 80 proof. Aging time in barrel is not as relevant, but to be qualified as “straight bourbon” it must have been aged for at least two years.

The bourbons from Diageo's Orphan Barrel series. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

The bourbons from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

When one talks about bourbon in terms of what’s in the bottle, corn is the first grain type which comes to mind because of the 51 percent rule. Obviously there are other grain types which come into play in the rest of the recipe, and these vary by distillery and brand to commonly include various combinations of rye, wheat and malted barley. These result in such things as so called “high rye” and “wheated” bourbons, among others.

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Now you will hear some argue that bourbon must also legally be produced in Kentucky, but that is incorrect, as the federal guidelines only indicate it need be a distinctive product of the United States. While that means you are likely to see craft distilleries all across the US producing bourbon, it should be noted most people will still associate Kentucky as the center of the bourbon universe. And, indeed, it is.

Kentucky bourbon, to the Bluegrass State anyhow, is the lifeblood which makes its economic engine go. The state produces 95 percent of the world’s supply of this whiskey, which in turn is a $3 billion industry there. Over 15,000 jobs are also in play and the lion’s share of these belong to the members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. These distilleries and the like produce a ton of bourbon, to the tune in 2013 of 1.2 million barrels worth. A major reason for the strong tie to this state, besides history, is the limestone filtration of Kentucky spring water and the resulting impact on taste.

Having learned all of this, you are probably ready to have a glass of bourbon now. Like other whiskies, there are multiple ways to enjoy it. There’s always the cocktail route, but if you want to enjoy it just by itself you can try it neat (no ice), with a drop of water to open it up a little or on the rocks (with ice cubes). Each has its advantages and fans who swear by it, but however you choose to enjoy it that’s what matters the most.