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It’s time to learn about bourbon — here’s your guide

Put down the IPA and meet the actual coolest drink in town — bourbon

An assortment of liquor bottles on shelves
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Hello class, and welcome to Bourbon 101. Don’t worry; we’re not like those other schools where you aren’t allowed to drink during class. We’re cool. Now, get your notebooks and a glass of whiskey ready because it’s time to dive into the history of this America’s spirit.

It would be hard to find something more American than bourbon, except for maybe a bald eagle draped in an American flag with a baseball and an apple pie clutched in its talons. In any case, the history of bourbon follows the highs and lows of our country as a whole with good times, great times, and really bad times. It was built with ingenuity in a time of great hardship and flourished despite the best efforts of outside forces.

What exactly is bourbon?

It’s time to dive into a little American history here. Look, even if you weren’t a fan of history class, this is a pretty fun subject. In case you’re unaware, bourbon is highly regulated by the government in nearly every way (and that’s a good thing). To be legally called “bourbon,” there are several rules that need to be followed:

  • It has to be made in the USA. In 1964, Congress passed Resolution 57, designating bourbon whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States.” While some people may say that bourbon can only come from Kentucky, that isn’t true. Even though 95% of all bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, you can make bourbon in any U.S. state as long as you follow all the rules.
  • The mash bill (the mixture of fermentable grains) must contain at least 51% corn, with the remainder usually consisting of a mix of rye, barley, and/or wheat.
  • Bourbon must be aged in new charred American oak barrels. This is an important distinction, as most whiskeys from outside the U.S. are aged in used oak barrels that previously contained another whiskey, port, sherry, or wine.
  • Bourbon can only be distilled to 160 proof.
  • Once distilled, bourbon can only enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof and enter the bottle at no less than 80 proof.

Age statements

This part can be a little tricky, but as a consumer, this is some very important information that you can use to make the best-informed decision when shopping for bourbon. Legally, while there is no specified amount of aging time to be called a “bourbon,” there are a few important distinctions to know.

  • To be called a “straight bourbon,” it has to be aged a minimum of two years.
  • Any bourbon aged less than four years must have an age statement on the label.
  • Bourbon that has an age stated on its label must be labeled with the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

Bottled in bond

“Bottled in bond” is a subcategory of straight bourbon with its own special requirements. In a time of conglomerate-produced juice by god only knows who, a whiskey labeled “Bottled in bond” can, at a minimum, tell you that what’s in your bottle was produced by a single human being during one particular point in time, and aged and bottled in a way that is considered a mark of quality.

  • Must be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery.
  • Must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse supervised by the U.S. government for at least four years.
  • Must be bottled at 100 proof.
A decanter filled with bourbon sits next to a glass of bourbon and ice.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

History of bourbon

Distilling was most likely brought to present-day Kentucky by the earliest settlers of the region (Scots and Scots-Irish) sometime in the late 18oos. While the origin of bourbon as a unique form of whiskey isn’t well documented, and many stories and legends abound, it is likely that there was no single “inventor” of bourbon as we know it.

There are also several versions of where the name “bourbon” comes from. Some say it is named after Bourbon County, which in turn gets its name from the French royal family of the time. Staying with the county name logic, another version is that when the original Bourbon County was being further divided, people in the region continued to call the area “Old Bourbon.” “Old Bourbon” was a major port city that was used to transport goods on the Ohio River. Barrels of whiskey were painted with the name “Old Bourbon” to reference the port of origin, and because corn whiskey was probably the first kind of whiskey people tasted, “bourbon” became the name of any corn-based whiskey.

Everything was fine and dandy for whiskey drinkers until 1919. Not only was Shoeless Joe Jackson’s reputation ruined in the Black Sox Scandal, but this year also brought one of America’s greatest bonehead ideas: Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 and banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. As terrible as the Volstead Act was, we did get NASCAR racing out it. On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was officially repealed. Hallelujah!

Americans celebrating the end of prohibition.
Americans celebrating the end of prohibition New York Times

Final thoughts

Bourbon is big business. It accounts for nearly two-thirds of all distilled beverage sales domestically. Bourbon is so big that the U.S. Senate declared September as National Bourbon Heritage Month. Whether you’re sipping on Evan Williams White Label or Pappy Van Winkle 20-year, we can all agree that bourbon is just plain delicious. It can be aged for 20-plus years or for only a few months. Some bourbon is better in cocktails, like a boulevardier or an Old-Fashioned, while others are better enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water. However you like to enjoy your bourbon, we’re just happy that you’re enjoying some bourbon along with us.

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Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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