Bourbon is a Whisky made in Kentucky predominantly and since 1964 congress approved its status as ‘Americas Native Spirit’. It is differentiated from Scotch initially by misspelling its name as ‘whiskey’. Before that it had some negative connotations, like being tampered with, coloured with tobacco juice, fruit and neutral grain spirits until the bottled in Bond act stopped all that stuff and guaranteed the quality of what you were buying.
Many of the original distillers are tax dodging, slave-owning characters of questionable morals intent on selling their product to native Indians, drunks, moonshiners and anyone who would relieve them of their product, created as a storable substitute for grain.
It is made from at least 51% Corn, as in Maize a largely inedible grain. It is flavoured mainly with Rye which sometimes comes from a very large factory in Indiana.
To control Bacteria a quantity of the previous batch is added during fermentation to the new batch. Yeast is added a proprietary type kept a secret allegedly spending evenings, weekends and holidays in the master distillers home fridge. Given the propensity of my kids to regularly empty our fridge, I doubt this tale.
A bourbon could come from two different distilleries provided they come from the same state unless it is called ‘straight’ Bourbon.
There are hundreds of Bourbon Brands but they come primarily from 7 Distillers. It can be bought and bottled by others to create a new brand.
It is popularly sold as small Batch Bourbon. This means nothing at all.
To enhance sales most brands are marketed with fairy stories, legends about bygone times of Ministers, warehouse fires, blood sports, mythical figures, old distillers and myths of gangsters and hookers.
There is one brand so rare and exclusive that people queue, enter raffles and scour the states for small stockists who don’t know what they are selling. None of these actually exist.
It is called Pappy van Winkle – no really it is. Pappy was a salesman and makes his whisky from a wheat heavy recipe although it is mainly from Corn.
Bourbon is made in a large factory with many huge warehouses in which it is stored, then moved, then moved again.
The most famous Bourbon in some markets, Jack Daniels is in denial about being Bourbon at all and styles itself Tennessee Whiskey, because it is filtered through maple charcoal and distilled in Tennessee.
Creating distinctive bottles and brands is a preoccupation of American distillers. One called Makers Mark created its distinctive flavour by the wife of the owner making hundreds of loaves of bread. The bottle is hand dipped in red wax which is both labour intensive and expensive but looks good until the wax seal is broken. Another bottle is so attractive you can drink it then resell it n eBay for a quarter of the full price. Seems like a return to the old days of deposits on glass bottles.
To achieve its caramel and vanilla flavour the Bourbon is matured in wooden casks that have been set on fire. Because the casks are wooden, they burn but the burning is kept to the inside. The used barrels are then sold to the frugal Scots who reuse it a further 2 or 3 times.
Some Bourbons have their age on the label, some on the rear and others don’t have them at all because there is so much demand, they stopped selling them – these funny ‘hicks’.
Having created this great spirit and its close cousin Rye many young Americans drink it with bitters, juice and paper parasols. They call this the ‘cocktail culture’.
Many others take this amber glowing elixir and put Coke in it so that they don’t taste it at all.
Others pour it over crushed ice ensuring that the final few sips are only of gold coloured water.
Bourbon and Rye are the fastest growing spirit sales on the planet. Some would argue this is because they do not taste like whisky, hardly a great USP. Why sell whisky that tastes like confectionary and if you find it too strong put some fizzy drink in it to completely mask the taste.
The saving grace is that at cask strength, this is a glorious complex whisky which the connoisseurs adore. They score high in annual Whisky of the year contests, as this helps sell books and keep a continuous flow of the samples going.