Understanding Bourbon

Bourbon and glass

Celebrated wine aficionado, Ron Kapon, who is known in wine circles as the Peripatetic Oenophile, the traveling wine expert, answers questions that Cheese Connoisseur readers have asked.

CC Reader: I love Bourbon, but where did Bourbon get its name?

R.K.: Bourbon most likely got its name from Bourbon County, located in the central Bluegrass Region of Kentucky and named to honor the French Royal Family. The region once housed the major shipping ports for distilled spirits heading down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The names for Bourbon and whiskey soon became synonymous.

There is the story of the Baptist minister Elijah Craig who established a distillery in Bourbon County, thus giving a name to his whiskey. It’s a good story, but it’s not exactly true. In 1780, as the Ohio Territory was cut into smaller units, the Virginians claimed a piece of it. They named it Bourbon County after the then-current French ruling family to honor the support of the French during the American Revolution. In 1792, when Kentucky became a state, Bourbon County was divided into 34 of the present existing Kentucky counties, one of which was Bourbon, with its famous whiskey. In 1840, Mr. E.G. Booz, a liquor dealer in Philadelphia gave his name (what a great name) to alcoholic products and they became known as booze. Now you know the whole story.

Doc Crows Marty Pearl
Doc Crow’s selection of bourbon. Marty Pearl

CC Reader: What ingredients are used to make Bourbon?

R.K: True Bourbons must be made using at least 51percent corn — most distillers use 70 to 80 percent corn — and aged a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels. Any Bourbon aged less than four years must list its age on the label. Bourbon must be distilled at less than 160 proof, which is 80 percent alcohol by volume.

If all the above requirements are met the Bourbon may be called Straight Bourbon but it is not required to be labeled as such. Charring transforms the wood and caramelizes the sugars, bringing out the vanilla and caramel flavors characteristic to the Bourbon style. Nothing can be added at bottling to enhance flavor, add sweetness or alter color.

The quality of the water also plays a significant part in the process. Look for hints of banana, burnt sugar, caramel, honey, butterscotch, hazelnuts, leather, hay, cedar, tobacco leaf, and tar.

CC Reader: What is the process used to make Bourbon?

R.K.: In real life, almost all Bourbons sold today are made from more than two-thirds corn — the remainder being wheat and/or rye — and aged at least four years. This mixture, called the mash, is fermented using the sour mash method. This means the mash saved from a previous distillation is added to ensure consistency from year to year and batch to batch. The fermented mash is then distilled, which produces a clear liquid. When placed in charred oak barrels, at no more than 125 proof, the clear liquid soon gains color. After aging, the Bourbon is removed from the barrels, diluted with water and bottled.

The Kentucky soil is rich in phosphates, perfect for growing grain. The rivers are filled with calcium and the water is very pure. Hot summers and cold winters are ideal for aging whiskey in cask and the nearby oak forests provide the wood for the casks.

Most whiskey is sold at 80 proof, but there are 86, 90, 94 and 100 proof examples. Higher proofs than these are often called “barrel proof” and have not been diluted when removed from the barrels. The term Bottled-in-Bond used to refer to Bourbons kept under federal government supervision in bonded warehouses for the four-year minimum aging period. Now, any 100 proof Bourbon can carry that designation.

CC Reader: What do the words Small Batch and Single Barrel mean on a Bourbon label?

R.K.: Small batch Bourbons are produced from a “batch” of barrels that have been mixed prior to bottling. As opposed to single barrel Bourbons that are the bottling of one “single” barrel of Bourbon.

Small Batch Bourbon refers to craft distilling. It is similar to the wine term Reserve. Every distiller has his or her own interpretation of what constitutes a “Small Batch.” When questioned, distillers have different answers from less than 100 barrels to more than one barrel. The term Vintage Bourbon means the whiskies are older than four years.

CC Reader: Does Bourbon have to be made in Kentucky and how are its sales?

R.K.: While still mainly associated with the American South, Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. All Bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is Bourbon. Tennessee whiskey? Canadian whisky? Scotch whisky? Definitely not Bourbon. True, 95 percent of the world’s Bourbon is distilled and aged in Kentucky and Bourbon production has doubled since 1999 from 450,000 barrels to the more than 1 million barrels in 2012. There are now 4.9 million barrels of Bourbon aging in Kentucky. In 1964 the U.S. Congress declared Bourbon America’s only native spirit.

The Presidential at Dish On Market
The Presidential at Dish On Market Marty Pearl

CC Reader: You recently spent five days in Louisville, Kentucky learning about Bourbon. Can you point out favorite places you visited and their signature drinks?

R.K.: The Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville celebrates the evolution in the growth of restaurants with Bourbon in its cuisine, cocktails, décor and on the bar itself. More than two-dozen stops make up the current trail. Each stop must have at least 50 Bourbons available at the bar.

Asiatique offers Bourbon with a Pacific Rim style twist. Its Bourbon Cocktail is made with Old Forester Bourbon, Domain de Canton and triple sec. It’s shaken and strained in a martini glass with a lemon wedge.

The Bar at BLU in the Marriott Downtown is known for its Chocolate Julep Martini. A Mint Julep is a seasonal drink made with just four ingredients — mint, Bourbon, sugar and water. BLU’s martini adds a touch of dark crème de cacao and Bailey’s Mint to the drink.

Bourbon’s Bistro — with more than 150 Bourbons on its bar — offers the Maple Bacon Old Fashioned — muddled orange, cherry, simple syrup, bacon infused Bourbon, a splash of water and dash of maple bitters.

Buck’s has its own take on the Scarlett O’Hara cocktail. Old Forester Bourbon with Cointreau, lime juice and cranberry juice served as a martini.

The Derby Café in the Kentucky Derby Museum has a Bourbon drink named after the 1915 Derby winner — Regret. It features Makers Mark Bourbon shaken with sweet tea and peach schnapps.

Dish on Market offers Truman’s Breakfast — breakfast with a shot of Bourbon —just as President Truman liked it every morning.

The 1849 is the house favorite at Harvest — Old Fitzgerald’s 1849 Bourbon, made with house-smoked honey syrup and lemon juice. Served over the rocks.

The Old Seelbach Bar in the Seelbach Hotel — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the Great Gatsby — signature drink is the Seelbach Cocktail. Temporarily lost during Prohibition, it was rediscovered in 1995. The drink features Old Forester Bourbon with a splash of triple sec, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters and Korbel Champagne. CC

Mint Julip
Kentucky’s infamous Mint Julip. shutterstock

Mint Julip

½ oz Sugar syrup
2 ½ oz bourbon whiskey
3 to 4 cubes crushed ice
mint spring for garnish

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