When I started The Angel’s Share as a feature I didn’t mean for it to only be about scotch. It was a Whisky feature and today’s article is about Bourbon. Bourbon is America’s answer to Scotch. A product of a time, place and people, bourbon really owes it existence to the south most notably the state of Kentucky.
The beginnings of bourbon are not as clear as your would think something that is only a couple hundred years old should be but it is no less interesting. There are multiple claims and stories that take credit for the invention of bourbon. Some say the Baptist Minister Ellijah Craig first invented the drink by placing moonshine into charred oak barrels creating a brick red coloured substance. Jacob Spears also gets credit for inventing bourbon though his legend suffers for lack of preaching. The reality is that much like any food or drink invention there was many people who were doing similar things because they were limited to only a few choices of what to make their hooch out of. In Eastern Kentucky, corn was plentiful, the water was very pure and there was a healthy population of Scottish, Irish and Welch immigrants who had grown up distilling.
The Bourbon Laws
There were a series of laws passed in 1964 by the United States government to protect bourbon from foreign counterfeits and the degradation of the quality of the product.
First, to be labeled Bourbon or Straight Bourbon on the label the whiskey must be made in the United States of America.
Second, the whiskey must be produced from at least 51% corn mash.
Third, the whiskey must be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred.*
Fourth, the distillate must not exceed 160 proof(80%).
Fifth, the distillate must not be put into barrels at the proof higher than 125 proof(62.5%)
Sixth, the whiskey must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40%).
Seventh, the whiskey must be aged for a minimum of two years, and have no colouring or flavouring added .
There are also laws when it comes to labelling as bourbon comes in two varieties. Straight Bourbon and Small Batch Bourbon. Straight Bourbon denotes the following of the bourbon laws and small batch bourbon denotes the blending process in which a blender chooses the finest straight bourbons to create a much higher quality product.
Now knowing these laws I will debunk a couple of common myths and misconceptions.*
1) “Jack Daniels is technically a Bourbon even though it doesn’t follow the Bourbon Laws because it’s so popular.” Wrong on so many levels but with a small glimmer of truth. First the truth, when NAFTA was ratified the word Bourbon was used as a legal blanket word for all American Whiskies. So yes in the wording of a law that has nothing to do with alcohol, distillation or consumer protection, Jack Daniels can be described as a Bourbon. Now the Myth, Jack Daniels is not considered a bourbon because they use a charcoal mellowing process before bottling. This is a process that Jack Daniels patented himself and it gives JD a distinct flavour and mouth feel. If the people at Brown Foreman(JD’s parent company) wanted to make a Bourbon they would…Oh wait, they did. Also Jack Daniels is actually kind of a Canadian phenomenon. In the United States Jim Beam actually outsells Jack Daniels pretty handily, north of the border however we see the opposite.
2) “Bourbon can only come from Bourbon County in Kentucky.” As you read above Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. If the Hawaiians wanted to make an Maui Wowui Bourbon they, by law, could***. Also Bourbon County now does not contain a single distillery, the once huge county has been broken into over 20 smaller counties many of the distilleries you know fall within the old Bourbon County area but not in the current Bourbon County.
What Does Braised Blue Recommend?
There are dozens of bourbons out there and they all have very distinct styles and flavour profiles. I love Bookers but it’s smokiness and harsh alcohol content is usual off putting to the beginner. A seasoned veteran should also have a bottle of Maker’s Mark because its great for mixing or drinking straight up. And bang for your buck wise, Jim Beam seven year old will blow your mind for under $30. I will give you three bourbons to try. All three are drastically different and distinct but trying them will kind of give you are idea of the flavour profiles you can run across with when it comes to bourbon.
1. Buffalo Trace:
A bourbon that will show you what bourbon is all about. Rich, spicy, full of flavours of dried fruit, vanilla and and english toffee, this whiskey isn’t mellow. It comes at you with a punch but then the richness lingers on your palette forever. No many whiskies have a finish like Buffalo Trace.
2. Basil Hayden’s: The most mellow bourbon I’ve ever had. From the Jim Beam small batch line, Basil Hayden’s offers a high rye content(which normally adds to spicy character in a bourbon) but is balanced by an 8 year aging. Coming it at a pale straw yellow this whiskey will lull you into drinking it neat and then before you know it you are glued to your easy chair.
3.Wild Turkey Rare Breed: Wild Turkey has a reputation of being harsh and that reputation is 100% founded. The Rare Breed is a blend of 6, 8 and 12 year old offerings of Wild Turkey and what you get is one of the most intensely satisfying bourbons known to man. Hints of citrus, mint, carmel, and pipe tobacco on the nose bely the rich palette of christmas spice, candied pecan, hot chilies and freshly baked bread. It sounds strange but this red leather coloured bourbon will blow your mind.
* Kind of a cool thing about the use of New Oak Barrels. Cooperage(barrel making) is one of the most difficult disciplines in carpentry. When the Bourbon Laws were created there was a deal struck between Bourbon producers and the Coopers Union to protect first the jobs of coopers as well as the trade its self. Oak Barrels can be reused, but these laws make the producers go to the extra expense of producing thousands of new barrels. I think it’s pretty refreshing that this practice is still part of the tradition of bourbon production.(Also the scotch industry would be in big trouble if there wasn’t thousands of used bourbon barrels to purchase every year.)
**Read this to yourself in an annoying half mongoloid voice so full of undue self confidence that it makes you feel a little ill inside. A character I like to call, “A guy who once went to Kentucky which gives him the right to incorrectly interject while you try to sell bourbon to someone willing to spend twice as much money as said interjector.” This person exists, and by this person I mean multiple people have done this while I have been with customers. I am so glad I am out of retail.
*** But please, for the love of Pele the fire goddess, don’t.