What is Bourbon?

04 Jul, 2018

It’s that time of year when America celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This landmark declaration freed the American colonies from the rule of the British Empire and now gives a yearly reason for our friends across the pond to throw parties and parades, let off fireworks, dress in red, white and blue and generally have a good ol’ knees up!

As we all know, all good celebrations require a drink or two – and when it comes to stocking the bar, no Fourth of July party would be complete without the most quintessential of American drinks. We’re talking, of course, about bourbon! This aged spirit is proudly recognised by Congress as ‘America’s Official Native Spirit’, and whilst we’re not entirely sure what that means in practise, it does highlight the hugely important place that bourbon occupies in America’s heritage.

However, for many of us, the distinction between bourbon and whisk(e)y is a mysterious one, which is why we’ve put together a simple guide for you to shed some light on the subject…

What is bourbon?

Writer’s Note! Before we discuss bourbon, I must point out there is a further difference here between whiskey and whisky. No, the spelling is definitely not interchangeable … put simply, whisky comes from Scotland and whiskey from the United States. Generally speaking. That statement has probably sent whiskey/whisky purists into meltdown (sorry, Scotland!) as there are a whole host of other subtle variations between the two, but for the purposes of this article, that’s really all you need to know. We’ll do something bigger on this another time.

Anyway… Bourbon.

The origins of this most all-American of drinks are vague, but the general consensus is that the first bourbon was made in the 1700s by enterprising settlers from Scotland, Ireland and other parts of Europe. When these intrepid folks headed to the New World, they brought with them a wealth of knowledge about distilling, and of course a healthy taste for the ‘water of life’ (as whisky is often known). Many put down roots in the southern states, including Kentucky, where they found a plentiful supply of corn. This crop was high in sugar and grew enthusiastically in the southern climate – the perfect ingredient for distilling. Eureka!

Important Bourbon Fact No 1:

There is of course some debate about what makes bourbon, bourbon. Purists argue that it’s only a true bourbon if it hails from the Southern state of Kentucky, whilst others feel that just being made in America is enough. Who’s right? You decide.

The popularity of this smooth amber spirit grew exponentially throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, due to its relatively low cost and delicious flavours of caramel and vanilla. The manufacturing process was honed over time into the exacting method used today, which involves several key elements such as the requirement that the spirit is aged in new American oak barrels (unlike many other whiskies, which often re-use barrels) and must go into the barrel at no more than 125-proof. This process is primarily what differentiates bourbon from other types of American whiskey.

Important Bourbon Fact No 2:

Again, for bourbon to be bourbon, it must be made from mash that is at least 51% corn, with the rest usually an amalgamation of other ingredients such as rye and barley.

Then came Prohibition. The ban on the production, import and sale of alcohol was imposed on the United States between 1920 and 1933 (if you ever happen to find yourself in a Kentucky distillery, best not to mention the 18th Amendment) and had a catastrophic effect on bourbon distilleries. Many went out of business, never to recover. For those that did survive, it took decades for the industry to regain its former buoyancy. Bourbon’s survival truly was due to that famous American can-do attitude, with producers rolling up their sleeves to rebuild their businesses … and the hard work paid off. Today, bourbon is thriving, with all the big names producing more bourbon than ever before, as well as wonderful craft distilleries paying homage to their favourite tipple.

Important Bourbon Fact No 3: There are approximately 6.7 million barrels of bourbon currently aging in the state of Kentucky – that’s 1.5 barrels for every person in the state!

Bourbon sales now generate nearly $4 billion a year, with the popularity of this Stateside spirit ever increasing. Distillers continue to hone their craft and bring us new, exciting and innovative batches. Intrigued? Well, if you’ve never before had a taste of the brown stuff, the Fourth of July is a great time to start!

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