As we move into October, we say good-bye to Bourbon Heritage Month. On August 29, 2007 the Kentucky Board of Tourism announced that the US Senate had approved the measure to designate September ‘Bourbon Heritage Month.’ Well, what exactly does this mean? Basically, it is a month long celebration of ‘America’s Native Spirit’, culminating in the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. It’s also a damn good excuse to drink bourbon, talk about bourbon, and learn about all the culture, people, and history that surround the spirit.
So, what is bourbon? In order to be called bourbon, a spirit has to meet the following requirements:
(1) The primary ingredient must be corn (at least 51%)
(2) Must be distilled at no greater than 160 Proof
(3) Only new, charred, white oak barrels should be used for aging
(4) Be aged at least two years to be called a straight bourbon whiskey
(5) The spirit must go into the barrel at no more than 125 Proof
(6) Only water can be added to adjust the Bourbon to the appropriate bottling strength…nothing else.
Also, while bourbon is a distinctly American spirit, it is not necessarily strictly Kentuckian. (Is that a real word?) Although most bourbon is made at one of the few active distilleries in Kentucky, it doesn’t HAVE to be in order to be called bourbon. So what really makes bourbon distinctive from other types of whiskies — say Rye, Scotch, or Irish Whiskey — is the mash bill (i.e. a majority corn, with a proportion of malted barley and wheat OR rye), and the barreling (new, charred white oak barrels). Kentucky bourbon also traditionally uses column stills versus pot stills (with the exception of Woodford Reserve), and this contributes to the flavor as well.
But, what makes one bourbon unique from another? There are a number of factors that will contribute to a different taste, feel, and smell from one bourbon to the next. Here is a — by no means comprehensive — list of some of the factors that differentiate bourbons. It is helpful to know, if only to pinpoint why you like a particular bourbon, and help you to find other bourbons that you will like!
(1) The proof. Bourbons will run the gamut from 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) to 140+ proof. Find out what proof you like. You can always add a bit of water or an ice cube to get down to a desired proof, but you can’t boost one that’s too low.
(2) The distillery. You will certainly get general deviations from one distillery to the next (type of still, location of warehouses, etc.), though people are always surprised by how many different expressions of bourbon can come out of the one distillery as well. Pappy Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace are both distilled at the Trace distillery; Four Roses distills Bulleit bourbon; Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden all come out of the Jim Beam distillery. More important than the actual distillery are the choices that the distiller is making…
(3) The small grain. Bourbon is made of a majority corn, a percentage of malted barley, and then either rye OR wheat. The rye or wheat in a bourbon is referred to as the ‘small grain’, and whether a bourbon has wheat or rye for its small grain often makes a big difference in terms of flavor profile. Bourbons with rye as the small grain (the more common variation) tend to be spicier and more robust, while ‘wheated bourbons’ (as bourbons with wheat as the small grain are called) tend to be sweeter and softer. These are, of course, generalizations that don’t always hold true, but a good jumping off point. Some of the most famous wheated bourbons are Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle, and Weller.
(4) The mashbill. Each distillery has its own unique mashbill, which is the percentage of the corn, malted barley, and small grain in the mash. The proportion of the grains will make a difference in the flavor profile: a high percentage of corn tends to make a bourbon sweet and round; rye can add spice and body; wheat can add softness and delicacy; and malted barley has its own unique grain flavor profile that can take center stage or fade in the background. Bulleit, for example, proudly markets itself as having the most amount of rye of any bourbon on the market.
(5) The age. It is an interesting (and fun!) experiment to run through the different age statements of the same bourbon. Take Pappy Van Winkle, for example. If you wanted to, you could taste the 10 year (at two different proofs), the 12 year, the 15 year, the 20 year, and the 23 year all right next to each other. You will see, as a bourbon ages, it softens out a bit. The edges round, the spice recedes, and secondary nuances and flavors emerge in their place. Dried fruit. Tobacco. Leather. Most people find that they like bourbon around a certain age. For some people, the older the better. Others might like a bit younger bourbon.
Stop by your local LUSH and taste some bourbons with us. Find a new favorite. We celebrate bourbon every month of the year.
Posted by Jane.