Bourbon is experiencing a resurgence as of late. The American-made whiskey isn't just for cowboys or businessmen anymore. If you're curious as to what makes bourbon bourbon, here's the 411 for your 101:
- During the late 18th century, European settlers in America started making whiskey using corn as the main grain (since it was so readily available). These early producers aged the corn whiskey in oak barrels, keeping in line with traditional whiskey making. Because corn is a sweet grain, bourbon tends to be a sweet whiskey with oak, toast, vanilla, and toffee flavors.
- The American-made corn whiskey became known as "bourbon," because it was first made in the original Bourbon County of Virginia (present-day Kentucky). Even though bourbon technically can be made anywhere in the US, the Kentucky area is hailed for its incredibly pure, limestone-filtered water, which naturally removes any metals and minerals that could affect the way the bourbon tastes. About 97 percent of bourbons are made near Bardstown, KY.
- To this day, the US government regulates that bourbon must be made in America from at least 51 percent corn. The rest is malted barley and a flavoring grain — either wheat or rye. It has to be distilled at no higher than 160 proof and must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels for at least two years (to be considered "straight" bourbon). No additives are allowed (not even to change the color), except for pure water to bring down the proof; the bourbon has to be bottled at least 80 proof.
- Lately, bourbon makers are offering small batch or single barrel bourbons for a heftier sum. Small batch bourbons (a term coined by Jim Beam in the '80s) are made by mixing bourbon from several different barrels (though from the same batch) before bottling. For larger distilleries, this could equate to hundreds of barrels. Single barrel bourbon is made from bottling one single cask (aka barrel) of bourbon. The bottle of the bourbon will have the barrel number on the label to distinguish it.