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7 Things You Should Know About Bourbon

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September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a celebration of America’s “native spirit.” I celebrate bourbon pretty much year-round, but it’s nice to have everyone else join in for a little while. If you’re not too familiar with the all-American whiskey, here’s a few things to catch you up to speed. 

1. First things first: Where’d the name come from? The usual explanation is that the hooch is named for the original Bourbon County, Kentucky, which covered a far larger area than the modern county (which has no distilleries today) and came to be called “Old Bourbon.” As the corn whiskey made by area distillers was shipped around the country, the barrels were stamped with the county’s name, and people started calling the Kentucky whiskeys bourbon to differentiate them from other regional styles. Bourbon County, in turn, was named for the royal House of Bourbon, which produced monarchs that ruled over France, Spain, Sicily, Naples, Spain and elsewhere.

There’s also an alternate explanation of the name that credits it to the whiskey’s popularity in New Orleans and curious drinkers seeking out the whiskey sold on Bourbon Street, or “that Bourbon whiskey.”

2. While bourbon was born in Kentucky and much of it is still made there today, bourbon doesn’t have to come from Bourbon County or the Bluegrass State. What makes bourbon bourbon, according to the Federal Standards of Identity of Distilled Spirits, is this: 

- It’s made in the U.S.
- It’s distilled from a grain mix that is at least 51 percent corn.
- It’s aged in new, oak barrels that have been charred.
- It’s distilled to no more than 160 proof (more on that in a minute), put into the barrel for aging at 125 proof or below and bottled at 80 proof or higher.

Bourbon that meets those standards, and has been aged for at least two years can be labeled straight bourbon.

3. The “proof” of a bourbon or other spirit is a measure of its alcoholic strength, defined in the U.S. as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. So, for example, the bourbon that goes into the barrels at 125 proof is 62.5 percent alcohol. The term comes from 18th century Britain, where sailors “proved” their rum rations were not watered down by splashing gunpowder with the spirit and then igniting it. If the powder burned, the rum was legit. 

4. Last year, Kentucky’s distilleries filled 1,007,703 barrels with delicious bourbon. They hadn’t hit the million-barrel milestone since 1973, and the busy year brought their total inventory to 4.9 millions barrels. Kentucky now has more barrels of aging whiskey than it does people (the population is 4.3 million). The 2012 tax-assessed value of all that bourbon was $1.7 billion.

5. Bourbon’s origins aren’t well documented, but popular legend credits the first batch to Baptist preacher Elijah Craig. Ever thrifty, Craig supposedly re-used an old barrel to age some home-made corn hooch and sanitized it by charring—giving it a unique color and flavor. More likely, bourbon has no one creator. Corn whiskey was distilled in Kentucky before Craig arrived from Virginia, and aging in charred barrels is also documented decades earlier as a means of dealing with “sap blisters” in the wood that could alter the whiskey’s flavor. 

6. You’ll sometimes see bottles labeled sour mash bourbon. This doesn’t describe the flavor, but means that the whiskey was made using the “sour mash process,” where the mash—the mixture of grain, malt, and water that the spirit is distilled from—contains some material from a previously fermented and used mash. This helps maintain the chemical balance of the new mash, discourages growth of foreign bacteria, and maintains consistency and quality from batch to batch. 

7. Another term you might see on a bottle is Bottled-in-Bond or Bonded. This means the bourbon was made at a single distillery, by one distiller in one distillation season, aged for at least four years in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. 

Bonded bourbons came about in the late 1800s, when some distilleries were to turning a quick buck on harsher, unaged bourbons and adding anything from fruit syrups to tobacco to improve the color and flavor. As American Whiskey Reviews explains, the distilleries that churned out these “rectified whiskies” had a leg up on more proper bourbon makers in terms of production time and costs, allowing them to control much of the whiskey market. To protect themselves, distillers lobbied Congress to lay down the above standards in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, giving their products a mark of government-guaranteed quality assurance and a fighting chance in the market. 

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science
Why Adding Water to Your Whiskey Makes It Taste Better
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Don’t ever let people tease you for watering down your whiskey. If they’re true aficionados, they’ll know that adding a splash of water or a few cubes of ice to your drink will actually enhance its natural flavors. But how can something as flavorless as water make a barrel-aged scotch or bourbon taste even better? Chemists think they’ve found the answer.

As The Verge reports, researchers from the Linnæus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden analyzed the molecular composition of whiskey in the presence of water. We already know that the molecule guaiacol is largely responsible for whiskey’s smoky taste and aroma. Guaiacol bonds to alcohol molecules, which means that in straight whiskey that guaiacol flavor will be fairly evenly distributed throughout the cask. Alcohol is repelled by water, and guaiacol partially so. That means when a splash of water is added to the beverage the alcohol gets pushed to the surface, dragging the guaiacol along with it. Concentrated at the top of the glass, the whiskey’s distinctive taste and scent is in the perfect position to be noticed by the drinker.

According to the team’s experiments, which they laid out in the journal Scientific Reports [PDF], whiskey that’s been diluted down to 40 percent to 45 percent alcohol content will start to show more guaiacol sloshing near the surface. Most commercial whiskey is already diluted before it's bottled, so the drink you order in a bar should fall within this range to begin with. Adding additional water or ice will boost the flavor-enhancing effect even further.

As for just how much water to add, the paper doesn’t specify. Whiskey lovers will just have to conduct some experiments of their own to see which ratios suit their palate.

[h/t NPR]

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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