The history of Bourbon, and its myths.
Scotland makes Scotch whiskey. Ireland makes Irish whiskey, and America makes Bourbon. In the mid-1960s a law was passed that designated bourbon as a ‘distinctive product of the United States.
While the spirit may have begun life in the state of Kentucky, bourbon products may now be produced by any state in the USA, provided all of the rules are followed.
To be called ‘bourbon’ the following standards must be met.
- The spirit must be aged in new oak barrels.
- It must be bottled at no less than 80 proof and can only be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof.
- The mixture of grains or ‘mash’, must contain at least 51% corn.
There are a few stories circulating around how and where bourbon originated. The distilling process was brought to America by early Scottish and Irish settlers. The name ‘bourbon’ is thought to come from Bourbon County whose name is derived from a French royal family. Other stories credit a Baptist minister with using oak barrels to produce bourbon.
By the Civil War, Bourbon production was being taxed by the government. The tax increased throughout the war, and from late 1800 to the 1900s a number of acts were passed to preserve the quality and purity of alcohol. Finally, in 1909, a law was passed that would provide the legal definition of bourbon.
Myths about bourbon
Bourbon is a popular drink in the USA, bourbon spirits account for almost 70 percent of all distilled alcohol in the country, and the industry continues to grow. However, there are a number of myths that have cropped up around the production, manufacture, and consumption of bourbon.
Here are a few common misconceptions.
It has to be aged for 2 years.
A popular myth that is frequently heard is that bourbon isn’t really bourbon unless it has been aged in barrels for at least 2 years. However, this is only partially true, no matter how long the spirit is kept in the barrel it can still be called ‘Bourbon’, but to be classified as ‘Straight Bourbon’ it must be aged for a minimum of 2 years in a new barrel.
It is only made in Kentucky.
Early origins of bourbon distilling do trace back to the state of Kentucky, but it is not the only state that produces the liquor. While a large proportion of bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, there are producers across almost every state in America. In fact, the law clearly states that bourbon produced anywhere in the country still has the legal right to be called ‘Bourbon’.
It should be aged in the bottle.
One of the beliefs among bourbon drinkers is that bourbon should age in the bottle, similarly to wine. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anything to improve the flavor. Bourbon ceases to age once it has been removed from its barrels. This is because as soon as it is removed, the char is no longer filtering the alcohol and the barrel is no longer present to do anymore.
Used bourbon barrels will improve the flavor.
Not only is this a myth, it is actually illegal. The law states that fresh oak charred barrels must be used in the bourbon manufacturing process. While old barrels may be repurposed for distilling batches of whisky, they absolutely cannot be reused in bourbon production.
Bourbon gets better the more it is aged.
As bourbon matures it extract notes and flavors from the oak barrels. While this can be a key part of the production process it doesn’t always follow that older means better. Bourbon that is left in barrels for too long can absorb the remaining notes, smells, and flavors from the charred oak, sometimes resulting in a bitter or woody taste.