Let’s Talk About Bourbon
What makes whiskey a bourbon? Well, to answer this question, we’re actually going to take a step back. There’s a saying in Kentucky: “all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” With that said, we need to define what whiskey is.
The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic word ‘Uisce Beatha,’ which means “water of life” (or the Scottish Gaelic, ‘Uisge Beatha’). Whiskey is defined globally as a spirit made from distilled cereal grains (corn, rice, barley, rye, wheat, etc.) and aged in wood. There are five major (or what we call “four plus one”) categories of whiskey globally. Each has its own set of rules and standards for their version of whiskey. The categories are Scotch, Irish, Blended, Bourbon, and Bourbon’s sibling, Rye. You may be surprised to learn that the standards for Bourbon were not made official until 1964. Before that, Bourbon and its sibling, Rye, had been produced under what was known as the Taft Decision. This dictated that whiskey be made only from grains, and specified which ones.
But in 1964, the standards that we now know were finalized and entered into the Code of Federal Regulations. One of those standards, and possibly the most important one, is that Bourbon has to be made in America, making it a “distinctive product of the United States.” Every other standard can be met, but if it’s not made here, it can’t be called Bourbon.
Requirements for Bourbon
So what about bourbon’s other standards? Well,
- It must be made from a grain base that is at least 51% corn
- It can be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof
- It can go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof
- It must be aged in a new charred oak barrel
- It has to be made in America
If these requirements have been met, and the whiskey has been aged for at least two years, it can be called “straight bourbon.” After that, there are some nuances to dating your bourbon. For example:
- If it is aged for less than four years, it has to carry an age statement
- If it has an age statement, the statement is that of the youngest whiskey in the blend
These rules also apply for makers of Rye Whiskey. The difference is that instead of requiring the mash to be a minimum of 51% corn, it must be at least 51% rye.
So you may be looking at that 51% corn requirement and begin asking questions, such as, what’s in the other 49%? How do you make whiskey from corn? Let’s take a look at a simplistic explanation of distilling.
The Skinny on Distilling
First, let’s address the other 49%. While corn has to make up 51% of what we call the mash bill, it is typically going to be around 70-75%. Corn gives bourbon its signature sweetness. The rest of the mash contains malted barley and what is referred to as the flavoring grains of either rye or wheat. This is important because of the impact those flavoring grains have on the final product.
Bourbon that has rye in it, which is the traditional grain, tends to have a bolder, spicier flavor. Bourbon that has wheat as its flavoring grain, tends to be softer, lighter, and sweeter. As a bit of a side note, many sought-after Bourbons are flavored with wheat such as Pappy Van Winkle.
How It All Comes Together
With that said, let’s bring this all together. Corn and the flavoring grains are harvested and milled into a coarse powder. They are then added to boiling water to begin drawing out the flavor. At a certain point, malted barley is added to the boil. The enzymes in the barley will then start converting the starches in the corn and rye to sugar. This is when the maker will add yeast to the mix. At this stage, the yeast will begin to convert the sugar to alcohol.
You’ll then have what is called “brewer’s beer,” which is going to have fairly low alcohol content. That beer is then distilled to separate the alcohol from the beer, resulting in what is known as ‘White Dog.’ It is typically distilled up to 160 proof to get the maximum amount of flavor out of the mash. Distilled water is then added to bring the proof down to a maximum of 125. This clear “White Dog” is then added into a new charred barrel. The barrel is brought to what is called a rickhouse, which is a warehouse that holds anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 barrels.
Then we wait.
We wait for the barrels and the weather to do their magic! It is then up to the Master Distiller to decide when the barrel is ready, which is typically at least four years for good bourbon. All that is left to do now is bottle it up, and enjoy a glass with good friends.
Now that you know all about bourbon, you’re probably wondering where you can find a good one. We’re here to help. Visit us at our store or contact us for our latest recommendation!