Breaking Down Bourbon

The Five Sources of Flavor display at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Bourbon is more than just a spirit. It’s more than a category of whiskey and certainly more than just a hot trend.

"The story of bourbon is pretty much the story of America. When America is doing well, bourbon is doing well. When America is having a hard time, bourbon falls on hard times," said Adam Harris, the American whiskey ambassador for Beam Suntory during a 2016 Nightclub & Bar Show presentation. “As long as the US has been a recognized country, we've been making whiskey here.”

Along with Erick Castro of Possessed by Spirits, Adam explained some interesting facts for those who sell bourbon to share with their guests. Sharing knowledge will help sell more bourbon. One thing that might surprise some people is how Scotland views bourbon and American whiskey in general. According to Adam, the Scots still look at American whiskey distillers as a fad. This is odd when you consider the fact that many Scotches are aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

“The Scots will tell you that they invented whisky, and they did,” said Adam, “but I think we perfected it.”

It should go without saying that Bourbon's roots are with whiskey. What you may not know is that American didn’t identify bourbon as "bourbon" right away. Early on, Colonial Americans made rough versions of whiskey. This is because immigrants with whiskey production knowledge decided to do what they did in their home countries. Colonial Americans also drank whiskey off the still, and the whiskey was called white dog and high wine. It was not, as some may thing, moonshine, which is even rougher than the rough versions being made way back when.

Many distillers started off as farmers. Erick and Adam pointed out that there really wasn’t a lot to do for entertainment decades upon decades ago, so some people would sell grain for bread or money. And those who had enough grain would try their hand at making whiskey. Not only was it something to do, whiskey was great for trading with neighbors, making it possible to purchase everything from bread to plots of land.

Bourbon is a very natural product, comprised of water, wood, grain and yeast. Erick and Adam estimate that 95% to 97% of good bourbon is produced in Kentucky. For those wondering why Kentucky bourbon taste so great, it’s because the state’s water source is filtered through limestone. This natural filtering removes iron and replaces it with calcium, imparting sweeter flavors. Speaking of sweeter flavors, wheated bourbon is sweeter than its non-wheated counterpart. Interestingly, wheated bourbon hits you on the front of your palate, whereas rye hits the back. So, Kentucky water makes two fantastic things: strong race horses and wonderful whiskey.

Educating yourself, your staff, and your guests is just as much about correcting erroneous information as it is about sharing the basics. There are a couple of big myths people believe about bourbon. First up, the Bourbon County, Kentucky myth. One of the most common myths surrounding bourbon is that it must be produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky to be called bourbon legally. Sounds good, but it just isn’t true. It’s commonly believed that 26 distilleries were in operation in Bourbon County, but when Prohibition went into effect the industry was wiped out. In 2014, Hartfield & Co. opened their doors in the county, 95 years after all production ceased. A second myth you can bust for your staff and guests is that maybe bourbon doesn’t need to be produced in Bourbon County but it does have to come from the state of Kentucky. Bourbon, by law, can be made anywhere in the United States as long as it adheres to the following:

  • Made up of at least 51% corn.
  • Must be aged in brand-new American white oak barrels.
  • The ABV must be at least 40 percent.

Finally, you may find it shocking that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey actually meets all of the criteria to be called bourbon legally. And if you’re surprised by that, imagine how your guests will react when you share that information.


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