An Introduction to Bourbon

27 09 2010


During this last week of September (which is also National Bourbon month) we will approach the history and components of bourbon, explore a few recipes and enjoy a tasting. 

This is an introductory piece for the newcomers to the world of bourbon. If you happen to be a bourbon aficionado all the information shared will be familiar territory. As this is my first experience dabbling with bourbon, tasting, pairing and dining with the spirit, it has proved to be a joyous learning experience.

Who knows, perhaps you will learn something? I know I did.  Cheers to you!

Bourbon.  Around the world it is a distilled spirit that evokes only thoughts of the American south.  Birthed from Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, when Irish-Scottish Settlers refused to pay a whiskey tax.  Causing problems, Washington provided incentives for settlers who would move out of the area to Kentucky (at that time parts of what is now Kentucky were part of Virginia).  Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia, offered the settlers sixty acres of land if they built a permanent structure and raised corn.  Sixty acres of corn proved too much for one family, but a welcomed solution to all of the corn was making whiskey with the leftovers. 

We are still talking about bourbon, don’t worry.  Here is where the jargon can be confusing, but I will try to explain.  All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.  That is a mouthful, I know.  Legend says that whiskey was stored in charred oak barrels for long trips. The outcome included a caramel color and flavors different from that of the original whiskey.  Named for the county of its origin in Kentucky, bourbon was born (Old Rip Van Winkle, History of Bourbon.)

Legally, bourbon must be straight whiskey made in the United States (anywhere, not just Kentucky) with at least fifty-one percent corn (although most distillers use more), aged two years or more in new charred oak barrels (most is four years or older), distilled at 160 proof or lower, and no coloring or flavoring can be added.  Just as a point of interest all straight bourbons in the United States are made of sour mash.  Sour mash uses drained liquid from mash (fermented and cooked grains) leftover from the primary distillation and adds it to the next batch of mash, thus bringing forward the character of each old batch and balancing the acidity. 

If no coloring or flavor can be added how is the beautiful caramel color and taste derived?  Prior to storing the whiskey, new barrels are assembled and heated to extract natural sugar and tannins from the wood. After formation, the interior of the barrels are charred over an open flame to produce a layer of charcoal (Regan, G. Regan, M.H. The Baffling World of Bourbon.)

With what we know about straight whiskey from above, the variety of bourbons on the market are based upon elements of production, storing, aging, and bottling.  This in itself is another essay for another day down the road, but I cannot go without mentioning a few differences. 

  • One of the unique qualities of this American spirit is the use of limestone spring water found in Kentucky and considered to greatly contribute to the flavor (Old Rip Van Winkle, History of Bourbon.)
  • Most bourbons are filtered with active charcoal both after aging and before bottling.
  • Small batch bourbon does not lend itself to the quantity of the spirit, but rather as whiskeys mature at different rates due to location, and temperature in a warehouse, batches are mixed together to develop consistency. 
  • Single barrel bourbon may differ from barrel to barrel and is not mixed as with small batch bourbon (noted above). The distiller makes selections that have matured and meet the standards of flavor to develop consistency.

We look forward to sharing with you our bourbon tasting and some of bourbon recipes this week.  It should be a good week.

(picture from




2 responses

27 09 2010
Suwannee Refugee

I like bourbon but not alone. I’m a two ingredient bourbon drinker. Although I just made a cobbler with bourbon. Pretty good.

28 09 2010

Yeah, it was hard to drink it straight during the tasting, but I have a feeling that it is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship as long as it is mixed.

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