Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is Bourbon?

This post is from my wife and bourbon trail partner, Nicole.  This the official, historically and legally accurate (possibly), history of bourbon whisky.

When you grow up in Indiana and escape to the East Coast as soon as possible, the idea of vacationing in Kentucky sounds pretty lame. However, a quick cost-benefit analysis reveals that camping (cheap) + tours (mostly free) - airfare (ridiculous) + tastings (also free!) = a pretty decent way to have some cheap fun. Granted, we went to eight distilleries, and for the less hardy among us, that might prove a bit inhibiting. However, the good news is that I now know the entire story of bourbon pretty much by heart.

And here it is: Once upon a time there were people who liked to drink. For cheap. They boiled some corn, rye, malted barley, and wheat. They added some yeast, and a bit of the previous batch's fermented mixture (just like when making sourdough bread) and let that shit ferment but good. After a few days, they stuck the resulting sludge (now called "sour mash" or "distiller's beer") in a copper pot and distilled it. What that means, is that they cooked it at a temperature whereby the alcohol (a product of the fermenting process) evaporated while the water and grain sludge did not. (Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water).  The alcohol, now in gaseous form, rose to the top of the still, where it was directed into a pipe and away from the boiling mess. Cool water surrounds the pipe, cooling the gaseous alcohol and turning it into liquid. The liquid, at this point, still had a tinge of color from the grains, so they did it again. This time, the liquid was clear and beautiful. They called it white dog, because it was clear (white) and it would bite you. Later, during Prohibition, when folks had to do their distilling in the dark, it got the name moonshine.

All very well and good, but this is the story of bourbon.

So some folks from back east rode over the Blue Ridge mountains to the land of Kentucky, blessed by bluegrass and sheer limestone cliffs. Unbeknownst to them at the time, that limestone was the perfect filter for water free of iron and perfect for bourbon making. These folks continued to practice the distilling of whisky as they had back east, but trouble was there was nowhere to sell it--too hard to get it back over the mountains to the cosmopolitan markets in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Instead, they decided to ship it downriver to New Orleans. They chose to ship it in barrels, and instead of using (and paying for) brand new barrels, they reused the barrels that had shipped various livestock and goods up the river. So as to protect their product from contamination, they charred the insides of these barrels to kill any lingering chicken germs.

When the folks down in Loo-zee-anna got a taste of that liquor a few months later, they were dumbstruck. The whisky had taken on the color and flavor of the charred barrels, resulting in a mellower, more flavorful sip. The white dog's bite was now a gentle tongue bath. They took to requesting this kind of liquor by name--they asked for Bourbon County Straight Whisky. That was a mouthful, so eventually they just called it bourbon. (Back in those days Bourbon County encompassed much more land than it does today; in fact, today Bourbon County is a dry county.)  Editor's note: Those folks in New Orleans were supposed to ship the whisky up the eastern seaboard, but the stuff was too good to give up. 

Now, years later, the government in their infinite wisdom and tax-centeredness decided to write down some rules so that not just anyone could distill some corn cobs, pour in food coloring, and call it bourbon. Depending on which tour you go on, there are either 6 or 8 laws distillers must follow in order to make bourbon.

1. Corn must constitute at least 51% of the grains used in the recipe. Most use more, between 70 and 75%

2. There may be no artificial additives. (This, incidentally, is why Jack Daniels is NOT bourbon, but Tennessee Whisky. They run their moonshine through a maple filter.)

3. The bourbon must be distilled at less than 160 proof, which is 80% abv. Any higher than that and it's not bourbon.

4. The bourbon must be stored in BRAND NEW charred white oak barrels.

5. The bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years.

6. The bourbon must be bottled at a maximum of 125 proof, or 62.5% abv. (See, it sits in the barrels for 2-18 years, slowly evaporating, so it comes out of the barrels at a much higher proof than it entered. The distillers then cut it with water.)

I may be missing a few regulations, but those are the ones I remember off the top of my head. And in fact, all of this is now permanently ingrained in my brain. However, I have not yet revealed the one thing that truly makes bourbon delightful. It is this: the hole in the barrel out of which the bourbon is poured is called...

wait for it


The end.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, partner. For the rest of your life you can wow people with your knowledge of bourbon whisky. You are probably in the 99th percentile of bourbon knowledgeability.