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.