Your humble narrator drank a lot of Bourbon last month. No, gentle reader, it wasn’t because I was listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and making passes at my attractive cousin.
I’m not entirely sure who comes up with these things, but September was National Bourbon Month, and your intrepid liquor reporter just had to do his part.
The origins of Bourbon go back to the late 18th century in Bourbon County, Kentucky. The large influx of immigrants from the British Isles settled the area now known as Kentucky, and they quickly set to work making hooch from whatever they could find.
The Scottish and Irish settlers were accustomed to making fine whiskeys from barley, but the Kentucky fields produced more corn than anything else. Unsurprisingly, the Bourbon Whiskey style evolved using corn as the base, and most Bourbons will distill down a mash of 70% corn and 30% barley or wheat.
Inquisitive readers might be wondering to themselves about now, what makes a Bourbon a Bourbon?
Similar to the geographic naming regulations of other spirits, Bourbon must be produced in the United States in order to be legally called Bourbon. While close to 97% of all Bourbon production does happen in Kentucky, it can be produced in any US state, even Hawaii or Alaska!
Bourbon must also be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, although most distillers use around 70% corn to give Bourbon its distinctive taste.
This is quite different from most other whiskeys, which prefer to stick with the traditional barley, wheat, or rye grains. This reliance on corn is what makes the other whiskey makers look down their collective noses at the Bourbon distillers.
Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Some whiskeys will re-use oak barrels that held sherry or another liquor, but Bourbon gets a new barrel each time.
Most Bourbon is aged in the barrel for at least four years, in a manner similar to other whiskeys.
Bourbon has not been wildly successful outside of the Southern United States. Perhaps the hillbilly connotations have been too hard to shake, or the rest of the whiskey world looks down on corn as a lesser grain.
It certainly doesn’t help that there is a similar tipple from the Southern US called Corn Whiskey that will have you strumming a banjo and courting your attractive cousin after a few sips.
Think of Corn Whiskey as the unaged hillbilly rotgut that you buy in a mason jar instead of a bottle, and use for degreasing engines as well as killing brain cells. Although Bourbon is much more refined than Corn Whiskey, the stigma of using corn is attached to them both.
You might have a bottle of Bourbon in your liquor cabinet right now – some of the more popular brands include Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey.
Whiskey snobs that were raised on the classier Scotch whiskies will insist that it be consumed neat, with no mixers or ice. However, those who are drinking Bourbon at an event where rednecks congregate are less likely to subscribe to that sort of whiskey snobbery. Expect to find the common Bourbon drinker to cut their Bourbon with water or ice cubes, or possibly even Ginger Ale or Coke.
The more adventurous even venture into cocktail territory, with the ladies preferring the Mint Julep, and their gentlemen friends preferring the Boilermaker or Whiskey Sour.
Your intrepid liquor reporter once spent an evening in a hotel bar during a business trip drinking Whiskey Sours while his companion of very recent acquaintance was knocking back the Mint Juleps like they were going out of style. Ahh…. those Atlanta girls… such memories.
For those not in the know, a Mint Julep is just a Mojito that uses Bourbon instead of Rum. Think of the girls from Sex And The City, only with Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts instead of Gucci handbags.
For the more manly imbibers in the audience, stick to the Boilermaker or Whiskey Sour. The Boilermaker is more for the hard-drinking set, made up of a shot of Bourbon dropped into a glass of beer. The Whiskey Sour classes things up a bit, and is made with Bourbon, sugar, and lemon juice. Shake over crushed ice in a martini shaker and enjoy!