Every country has their own style of whisk(e)y. Scotland has their single malts. Ireland triple-distills in column stills. Canada makes whisky from rye grains, and our Yankee neighbours to the south are famous for their corn-based Bourbon Whiskey.
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.
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 whiskies, which prefer to stick with the traditional barley, wheat, or rye grains. This reliance on corn is what makes the other whisky makers look down their collective noses at the Bourbon distillers.
Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Some whiskies 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 whiskies.
We even have a Bourbon connection right here in Alberta. Purveyors of local spirits may already be aware of Alberta Distillers Ltd, who have been producing fine whisky and vodka from Calgary’s historic Ramsay neighbourhood since 1946.
If you have ever mixed a highball with Alberta Pure Vodka, Alberta Springs Rye Whisky, or Alberta Premium Rye, you are already familiar with Alberta Distillers. What you may not know is that Alberta Distillers was acquired by Jim Beam Brands back in 1988, distillers of many famous Bourbons, including Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and many others.
Alberta Distillers producers over 100 million litres of distilled spirits every year, but only about one-third is bottled and sold in the Canadian domestic market, with nearly two-thirds of production shipped to the USA in bulk tanker cars for wholesale blending use by other distillers. That’s right, a portion of your favourite American whiskey might have been made right here in Alberta!
Bourbon is a protected trademark, so only whiskies made in the USA can be labeled as Bourbon, but we have a few Canadian distillers making corn-based whiskies in the same style as Bourbon.
Okanagan Spirits Distillers from BC produces the cheekily named BRBN corn whisky, pushing the envelope of trademark infringement to the limit. I have long been a fan of Okanagan Spirits, and make sure to visit their distillery in downtown Kelowna during my annual pilgrimage to BC wine country.
Made from corn grown in a field beside their distillery, the BRBN whisky is milled onsite and goes through the same fermentation and distillation process as a traditional Bourbon, then aged to perfection in American oak barrels.
I was lucky enough to sample the BRBN last Thanksgiving weekend while in Kelowna for a wine festival, and it is indeed a Bourbon in all but legal name. The sweet finish was typical of corn-based whisky, and the four years spent aging in charred oak barrels imparts toasty caramel aromas on the nose.
Closer to home, Rig Hand Distillery in Leduc also produces a corn-based whiskey, although the current stocks are unaged, making them more like a harsh moonshine than a smooth Bourbon. When it comes to whisky, patience is a virtue, and Rig Hand is painstakingly aging a portion of their corn whisky in oak barrels, which will be released as a Bourbon-styled whisky in the next few years.
As the craft whisky industry continues to grow in Canada, expect to see more Bourbon-styled whiskies appear from your local distillery, so be sure to try one soon!