Bourbon, the much beloved and uniquely American whiskey, gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. It was first distilled in the area in the late 1700s by westbound British, Irish and Scottish settlers.
In 1964, the US Congress established federal regulations for producing the spirit. Bourbon must be made from a mash (the base mixture of grain and water) that is at least 51 percent corn. The rest of the mash is made up of rye, wheat and/or malted barley. Unlike Scotch or cognac, bourbon must by law be aged in new, charred oak barrels. (The used barrels are then sold to distilleries around the world to age a range of alcohols, including Scotch, tequila and rum.) The spirit’s beautiful amber color comes from the wood that it is aged in for at least two years; distillers can’t add any color to the finished product. Bourbon also has to be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume).
Over the last ten years, bourbon has seen a rapid rise in popularity around the world. Demand has grown so much that distillers are having trouble keeping up. What’s driving sales are premium, small-batch bourbons, including Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Russell’s Reserve and Michter’s. Whether you’re in Louisville, New York or even Melbourne, Australia, you won’t have to look hard to find a bottle of good bourbon.
Here’s a shot of spelling with your glass of bourbon: Whisky from Scotland, Canada and Japan is spelled without an “e.” Whiskey from Ireland and the United States is usually spelled with an “e.”
HOW TO DRINK BOURBON:
Purists drink bourbon straight, but it’s often served in a rocks glass with a few ice cubes and a splash of water, in what industry legend and Jim Beam’s grandson Booker Noe called “Kentucky iced tea.” Like most whiskies, bourbon works well with club soda and ginger ale. The spirit is also the base for many classic American cocktails, including the Mint Julep, Old Fashioned, Presbyterian, Horse’s Neck, Ward Eight and Brown Derby.
NOTEWORTHY BOURBON BRANDS:
1792, A. H. Hirsch, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Black Maple Hill, Blanton’s, Booker’s, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Jefferson’s, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, Noah’s Mill, Old Crow, Old Forester, Old Grand-Dad, Old Rip Van Winkle, Rebel Yell, Rowan’s Creek, Sam Houston, Wild Turkey, Willett, Woodford Reserve
Learn all about even more types of liquor in our Spirits 101 stories on absinthe, cognac, gin, Irish whiskey, rum, rye whiskey, Scotch, tequila and vodka.