The Great American Spirit

01:00 January 01, 1970
By: Staff

A while ago, I ordered a bourbon at some random bar, and the confused bartender asked, "What's Bourbon?" Now, various emotions raced through me directly after, but my vanity would claim dominion because it gave me a glorious opportunity to listen to myself educate her. The difference between thenand now is that I actually know a little of what I'm writing about. 

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Strict standards hold bourbon to such specifics: 1) it must consist of 51% corn, 2 ) distilled no more than 160 proof (to not eradicate the characteristics of the corn, rye and barley), 3) nothing can be added except water (which disqualifies Jack Daniels from the bourbon classification because of its charcoal filtration process), 4) aged in charred oak barrels only once, 5) aged at least 2 years to be labeled as "straight bourbon whiskey," 6) and produced in the U.S. (though it's almost exclusively made in Kentucky). 

Not only is bourbon whiskey one of the most federally regulated products, but it's also one of the most heavily taxed. Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey's master blender since 1954, claims that his distillery's tax bill is just over "$1 million every 15 days. So about 65% of what you pay for a bottle is the taxes." Even the bourbon that evaporates during the aging process, of the "angels' share," is taxed.

Ironically, early government regulation somewhat led to the distingusihed bourbon craft. After the excise tax on domestic spirits in 1791, enraged Pennsylvanians rioted and assaulted tax collectors, which led to their suppression by Washington's militia in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Some whiskey producers looked south toward the territory of Kentucky to find less regulation, better corn growing conditions, and limestone water sources (which are cleaner and easier to ferment with). 

However, bourbon whiskey had begun to take shape in present-day Kentucky before this migration. In 1789, Reverend Elijah Craig had devised a new recipe including rye and barley, which later would be identified with bourbon. In 1840, bourbon got its official title when all whiskey produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky, became recognized as "bourbon whiskey."

Like the George T. Stagg distillery (now the Buffalo Trace distillery), many distilleries survived Prohibition due to their production of "medicinal" whiskey, while things like marijuana and cocaine were still legal. History repeats itself, just with different details. Well, some things don't change I guess, considering 80 counties out of the Kentucky's 120 remain voluntarily dry still today. 

Different brands vary on their proportions of their ingredients, but primarily a malt of corn, rye, and barley are distilled at 160 proof or lower, unlike 190 proof neutral spirit that derives a tastleless/odorless bodka. However, after distillation, the bourbon is clear like vodka. It won't get its classic amber/mahogany color until it has been aged for several years incharred oak barrels, as the barrel's wood expands and contracts with the changing seasons. After the barrels are emptied, they are sold off to wineries and other distilleries, predominately Scotch whiskey distilleries. So, apologies to you single malt snobs (myself included), but small traces of bourbon exist in your so-called pure Scotch whiskey. The longer they age in the barrels, some bourbons retain more of an oak-finish, which you taste intensely in the back of your mouth after swallowing. 

Bourbon whiskey stands as the only American original spirit. It is to the U.S. (even more to Kentucky), as Scotch is to Scotland, or rum is to the Caribbean. Russell jokes about his home state, "we are sometimes seen as a sin state. We produce more bourbon, tobacco, and racehorses than any other state." 

I'll drink to that trifecta, Jimmy. 

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