History of Bourbon Whiskey According to legend, Baptist minister and distiller, Reverend Elijah Craig was the creator of bourbon whiskey, although distilling probably was brought to Kentucky in the latter part of the 18th century by the Scots. The spirit they made evolved due to the availability of grain in the area, and eventually became known as bourbon in the early 19th century as a result of its association with the geographic area known as ‘Old Bourbon’.
In 1964, the US government took the steps to declare bourbon as a "distinctive product of the United States," asking "the appropriate agencies of the United States Government... [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as 'Bourbon Whiskey. From this date, bourbon was legally an entirely American product. Most bottles of bourbon come from a blend of batches that may range in age by several years.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is quite a specific classification, marshalled by strict US laws. Whilst the process of making bourbon is very similar to Scotch, it does, by law, have to be made in the US and contain a mash bill of at least 51% corn. It must also be stored in charred, new American white oak barrels for at least two years.
What really sets bourbon whiskey apart is the level of corn used. The corn combined with the new charred oak barrels, after being left to age, is how bourbon attains its unique flavor.
Over the course of those years the char interacts with the spirits, which pull alcohol soluble compounds out of the wood. The time is necessary because it is during this process that the robust and complex flavor is developed, as well as the traditional caramel color.
There aren’t any defined geographical areas for bourbon, yet the only spirits with this classification are made in Kentucky.
How is Bourbon Whiskey Made?
Around 95% of all bourbon whiskey is made in Kentucky, with the nine Kentucky bourbon distilleries lying only within about 40 miles of each other. The reason behind their location is the limestone-rich waters surrounding Louisville. The limestone naturally filters the water, reducing minerals and salts and providing a perfect, sweet tasting base for the spirit.
In a similar process to Scotch, bourbon whiskey begins with grain being ground and mixed with water. Americans are actually the only distillers to cook these different grains together, with other whiskey makers choosing to blend the different spirits after distillation.
The mixture is heated to break down the starch in the grain to create fermentable sugars. (Some distillers add enzymes at this stage to ensure the best possible conversion to sugars). After cooking, the mash is placed into a fermentation vat where yeast is added along with the essential ‘sour mash’ This ingredient is mash remaining from the previous distillation and is added to ensure consistency of flavour.
The mash is then distilled – usually twice – and then aged in oak barrels for at least 2 years. Whilst most distilleries use white American oak, no particular type of oak is actually specified in the law. With this freedom, some distilleries have recently begun experimenting with French oak casks to establish a different end flavour profile.
The aging process is paramount to a good bourbon, and each distillery handles it differently. Some will move barrels between floors of their rick houses to help balance the effects of temperature on the whiskey. After aging, the bourbon is briefly chill-filtered to remove proteins and give the spirit a clear consistency.
Bourbon is usually blended from over 100 casks, each drawn from different floors of the rick house. It’s the job of the Master Blender to find, in each case, the perfect blend of casks to produce an outstanding bourbon.
You will sometimes see terms such as small batch or single barrel in relation to bourbons. This usually means that the bourbon has been blended from a limited number of barrels and single barrel means that it has been made from a single barrel of whiskey, hence is similar to a pure malt.
Recommended Bourbons Here at Frootbat, bourbon whiskey is one of our favourites. If you’re interested in seeing what the Deep South of the USA can offer, why not start with some of our personal recommendations. Whichever you choose, you’ll be sure to enjoy the slightly sweet, caramel and oaky profile of these delicious whiskies.