Bourbon whiskey

[boor-buhn, bawr-, bohr- or, Fr., boor-bawn for 1–3; bur-buhn for 4 or, occasionally for 3]
Bourbon is an American whiskey, a type of distilled spirit, made primarily from corn and named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. It has been produced since the 18th century.

Legal requirements

On 4 May 1964, the U.S. Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States," creating the Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon. Federal regulations now stipulate that Bourbon must meet these requirements:

  • Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
  • Bourbon must be 100% natural (nothing other than water added to the mixture).
  • Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  • Bourbon which meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years, may (but is not required to) be called Straight Bourbon.
  • Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labelled with the duration of its aging.

In practice, almost all bourbons marketed today are made from more than two-thirds corn, have been aged at least four years, and do qualify as "straight bourbon"—with or without the "straight bourbon" label. The exceptions are inexpensive commodity brands of bourbon aged only three years and pre-mixed cocktails made with bourbon aged the minimum two years.

Production Process

The typical grain mixture for bourbon is 70% corn — with the remainder being wheat and/or rye, and malted barley. This mixture, called the mash, is fermented through a process called sour mash fermentation in which mash from a previous distillation is added to ensure a consistent pH across batches. The fermented mash is then distilled to produce a clear spirit.

This spirit is placed in charred oak barrels for aging, which is what imparts color. Consequently, bourbons that have been aged longer are generally darker in color.

After aging, bourbon is withdrawn from the barrel, diluted with water and bottled. Bottling proof must be at least 80 proof (40% abv) and most whiskey is sold at 80 proof. Other common proofs are 86, 90, 94, 100 and 107, and whiskeys of up to 151 proof have been sold. Some higher proof bottlings are "barrel proof," meaning that they have not been diluted after removal from the barrels.

Geographic Origin

Bourbon may be produced anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. Currently most brands are produced in Kentucky, where Bourbon has a strong association. Estimates are that 95% of the world's bourbon is distilled and aged in Kentucky. Other states producing bourbon include Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York. In the past, bourbon has also been made in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Bardstown, Kentucky, is called the Bourbon Capital of the World and is home to the annual Bourbon Festival in the fall.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a patchwork of paths that lead to eight well-known distilleries: Buffalo Trace (Frankfort, the oldest continually operating distillery in the United States), Four Roses (Lawrenceburg), Heaven Hill (Bardstown), Jim Beam (Clermont), Maker's Mark (Loretto), Tom Moore (Bardstown, producer of the 1792 brand, added to the trail on August 27, 2008), Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg), and Woodford Reserve (Versailles).


Although the invention of bourbon has often been attributed to a Baptist minister and distiller named Elijah Craig, there is no evidence supporting this assertion. As with most innovations, there may have been no single "inventor" of bourbon, which evolved into its present form only in the late 19th century.

Distilling probably came to what became Kentucky when European-American, and particularly Scottish and Ulster Scots, settlement began in earnest in the late 18th century. The spirit they made evolved and gained a name in the early 19th century.

When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped. "Old Bourbon" was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

A refinement variously credited to either Dr. James C. Crow or Dr. Jason S. Amburgey was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation is conditioned with some amount of spent mash (previously fermented mash that has been separated from its alcohol). (Spent mash is also known as distillers' spent grain, stillage, and slop or feed mash, so named because it is used as animal feed.) The acid introduced by using the sour mash controls the growth of bacteria that could taint the whiskey and creates a proper pH balance for the yeast to work.

As of 2005, all straight bourbons use a sour mash process. Dr. Crow or Dr. Amburgey developed this refinement while working at the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (now the Woodford Reserve Distillery) in Woodford County, Kentucky. As of today, there are no running distilleries within the current boundaries of Bourbon County due to new counties being formed from Bourbon County over time.

A resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1964 declared bourbon to be a "distinctive product of the United States." That resolution asked "the appropriate agencies of the United States Government . . . [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as 'Bourbon Whiskey.'" Federal regulation now defines "bourbon whiskey" to only include "bourbon" produced in the United States.

National Bourbon Heritage Month

On August 2, 2007, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) officially declaring September 2007 “National Bourbon Heritage Month,” marking the history of bourbon whiskey. Notably, the resolution claims that Congress declared bourbon to be "America's Native Spirit" in its 1964 resolution. The 1964 resolution, however, does not contain such a statement per se; it only declares that bourbon is a distinctive product identifiable with the United States in the same way that Scotch is identifiable with Scotland.

Present Day

Since 2003, high-end bourbons have seen revenue grow from $450 million to over $500 million (£231 million to over £257 million or €308 million to over €343 million), some 2.2 million cases, in the United States. High-end bourbon sales accounted for eight percent of total spirits growth in 2006. Most high-end bourbons are aged for six years or longer.

In 2007, United States spirits exports, virtually all of which are American whiskey, exceeded $1 billion for the first time. This represents a 15 percent increase over 2006. American whiskey is now sold in more than 100 different countries. The leading markets are the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Japan. Key emerging markets for American whiskey are China, Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Romania, and Bulgaria.

See also


Further reading

  • Cowdery, Charles K. Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (Chicago: Made and Bottled in Kentucky), 2004. ISBN 0-9758-7030-0
  • Crowgey, Henry G. Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky), 1971. ISBN 0-8131-1225-7
  • Regan, Gary and Mardee Haidin Regan. The Bourbon Companion: A Connisseur's Guide (Philadelphia, PA: Running Press), 1998. ISBN 0-7624-0013-7

External links

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