Bourbon can be enjoyed neat, with water or ice, or mixed in a cocktail — Photo courtesy of Neat: The Story of Bourbon
First things first, bourbon is a whiskey. But all whiskeys are definitely not bourbon, just like all dogs are not Great Danes. Furthermore, because of a 1964 Act of Congress that designated bourbon "America’s Native Spirit," by law bourbon can only be produced in the United States.
But, really, who are we kidding? When we talk about bourbon, we’re really talking about Kentucky, which produces a whopping 95% of the world’s supply. Bourbon also distinguishes itself in the whiskey world by how it comes to be.
There’s corn, lots of corn. Oak trees play a role, too, as do Kentucky’s soil and limestone-filtered water. Dedication and patience are paramount. After that, it’s pretty much up to nature.
Bourbon’s early history is muddled, with no one exactly sure how it came to be. Early settlers were certainly adept at making their own whiskeys with rye and barley to drink right off the still, both as moonshine and for "medicinal" purposes. In Kentucky, corn was added to the mix, and somewhere down the line, barrels proved useful for both aging and easy transport to far-flung places.
In any case, distilleries in the state were widespread by the 1800s. Buffalo Trace Distillery is the oldest continually operating distillery in America, in business for more than 200 years, including during Prohibition – for those medicinal purposes.
Buffalo Trace is one of 16 distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
Today, bourbon’s journey from grain to drink is ruled by strict regulations. It must be made from at least 51% corn, which bestows sweetness, mouth feel and a robust flavor. Together with barley and rye or wheat, the milled grains are cooked to create a mash, which is then fermented so yeast can convert sugars to alcohol.
It must be distilled at less than 160 proof; higher than that and you strip out the corn flavor, in which case it might as well be vodka. In fact, bourbon coming off the still does indeed look like vodka, a clear liquid known as white dog.
But then – and this is the truly brilliant part of the process – that white dog goes into the barrel, at a strictly controlled 125 proof. It’s not just any old barrel. For bourbon to be bourbon, it must be aged in brand new oak barrels that have been seasoned and charred.
Charring opens up the pores of that former oak tree, caramelizes wood sugars and allows the bourbon to penetrate the staves and absorb their caramel vanilla flavor. Kentucky’s extreme weather is vital to bourbon’s maturation, too. Hot summers cause the wood to expand and soak in the bourbon, while cold winters force the wood to contract and expel the liquid.
New oak barrels are charred before the aging process. — Photo courtesy of Neat: The Story of Bourbon
This is when that patient part of the equation comes into play. You can’t speed up aging and maturation. The longer the wait, the more flavorful bourbon becomes, whether it’s seven years, 10 years, or longer. But when it does come out of the barrel, that white dog has transformed into an amber-colored bourbon full of taste and character.
Absolutely nothing has been added during the whole aging process – no additives, no flavoring, no coloring, nada. In other words, pretty much all the flavor of bourbon comes just from the barrel.
"Bourbon is a complex, thoughtful approach to whiskey, with rules that protect its purity," says AJ Hochhalter, a music composer living in Kentucky and producer of the documentary Neat: The Story of Bourbon. "I prefer to drink it neat and with people and friends. I want to appreciate bourbon’s unique journey to my glass."
Neat refers to whiskey poured straight from the bottle and served at room temperature, without the addition of ice or mixers. Not that anyone will shame you if you want to mix it up.
The Bluegrass State, after all, is home to the Kentucky Derby, where the Mint Julep (bourbon, water, sugar, ice and mint) has been the traditional drink for almost a century. From Louisville to Tokyo, mixologists are experimenting with all kinds of bourbon-based cocktails.
A bartender in Tokyo making an Old Fashioned — Photo courtesy of Neat: The Story of Bourbon
With about 70 distilleries, Kentucky’s bourbon business is booming. A fun way to learn about bourbon is on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which links 16 distilleries clustered mostly between Louisville and Lexington, and in small towns like Versailles, Frankfort and Bardstown.
Whether on a self-driving or guided tour, you can learn about production and bourbon’s vast variations in taste due to differences in the mix of grains, individual barrels, aging, weather and more. Maker’s Mark, for example, uses winter wheat for its sweet and mild quality instead of rye with its spicy and bold flavor. Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon is aged for up to six years the usual way, but then it’s finished for three to six months in port barrels from Portugal.
True bourbon aficionados also follow the scent of the single barrel. That means the bourbon comes from just one barrel, making it rarer and more expensive than a blend that combines bourbon from many barrels. In fact, it’s these single barrels and small batches that are driving bourbon’s renaissance.
"I’ve had people from Australia, all over the world, contact me about bourbon," says Hochhalter. "But if they’re really interested, they need to come here. Experiencing bourbon in Kentucky is when people have their 'aha!' moment."
Drinks: Forget bourbon. Did you know Kentucky has its own beer trail?