Ahh, Bourbon. The American version of whiskey (with an e), with its unique taste and its American style. Crazy names, crazy bottles and endless hype. A Vegas version of its Scottish cousin. So what makes bourbon unique? Well, everything, quite frankly.
Bourbon tends to have a love it or hate it type of response. Unfortunately, I am still firmly in the latter category, not because it is a sub-standard product. It isn’t. There are some truly fine bourbons out there. I just haven’t gotten my taste buds around it. Yet.
I was at a whisky tasting a few months ago, and the host summed it up very nicely. Bourbon has a distinctly simple taste whereas Scotch has a more complex taste. Maybe my taste buds are too old for simple. Maybe they need the extra oomph that scotch provides.
So how did bourbon come to be? Named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, it evolved as a distinct taste from other traditional American whiskies that had been first produced in Pennsylvania and Tennessee by Irish settlers in the late 1700’s. According to legend, Elijah Craig is credited as the distiller of the first bourbon in 1789, when he started aging traditional American corn whiskey in oak barrels. Interestingly, Craig was a Baptist minister, but it seems that whiskey making ministers were’t that uncommon in and around Kentucky in those days. Fire and brimstone – take your pick.
While most bourbon (more than 90%) is made in Kentucky, it’s made in a few other states, including Texas, Virginia, Colorado and Indiana. Tennessee also makes huge amounts of whiskey, but it differs from Bourbon in that it is filtered through charcoal.
So what makes it bourbon? Like scotch, there are tons of rules. It must be made primarily (more than 51%) from corn. It must be aged in new, unused oak barrels, which has been a windfall for the ever-frugal Scots who buy most of the used bourbon barrels to age their whisky. And it must be at least 40% alcohol or greater. Those are the basics.
Next we’ll take a peek at the great white north and the proud Canadian rye whisky traditions.