Your humble narrator has been noticing a lot of Bourbon commercials on TV recently, and so made a point of chatting up a cute little spirits rep at a recent industry event.
As it turns out, Bourbon has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, and your intrepid liquor reporter can’t wait to tell you all about it!
Those of you who remember watching the Dukes of Hazzard will remember that in the southern U.S. states, everything was all about the county line. If Bo and Luke could only escape across the county line, Sherriff Roscoe P. Coltrane would have to call off his pursuit, followed by much cussing and possible throwing of cowboy hats in anger.
Well, gentle reader, there just happens to be a Bourbon County on the east side of Kentucky, named for the 16th-century House of Bourbon, a royal family in Europe whose members included the crowned kings of France, Spain, Luxembourg, and Sicily.
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.
Common brands of Bourbon include Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey.
Technically, Jack Daniel’s is also a Bourbon, but for marketing purposes, they prefer to differentiate themselves by calling Jack Daniel’s a Tennessee Whiskey rather than a Bourbon.
Jim Beam is one of the most recognizable brands of Bourbon on the market, and has been producing for over 200 years.
Started by the Beam family in 1795, the Jim Beam Distillery now boasts the seventh generation of family ownership. Sadly, the delicious nectar ceased to flow from 1920 to 1933 during the dark days of Prohibition.
The distillery was quickly rebuilt by the Beam family in 1933, who were only too happy to return to their former profession. Less than a year later, the first batch of Bourbon went into bottles, and they have been going strong ever since.
Most Bourbons are made with close to 70% corn, with wheat or barley making up the remainder. Since corn is much sweeter than barley, this makes Bourbon a sweeter spirit than Scotch, which is made with 100% barley.
This added sweetness can make Bourbon more approachable for the novice boozer, and make Bourbon easier to mix into a cocktail.
Your humble narrator’s favorite Bourbon is the Jim Beam Black, which is aged for a full 8 years in new oak barrels, giving it a very smooth and mellow taste. At under $30/bottle, it is only a few bucks more than the standard run of the mill Jim Beam, which is aged for a mere 4 years.
Drink it neat if you are a whiskey snob, or have it over ice with a splash of coke it you like that sort of thing.
However you like to drink it, spend the extra few bucks for the Jim Beam Black; life is too short to drink harsh hooch!