7 Things That Make Bourbon Bourbon (and Not Just Whiskey)
I had the chance to attend the Kentucky Bourbon Festival last month as a guest of Four Roses Bourbon, and besides drinking (I mean "tasting"), copious amounts of the amber-colored liquid gold I learned a few things about it that I had never known before. Most importantly: What makes bourbon bourbon, and distinguishes it from [...]
I had the chance to attend the Kentucky Bourbon Festival last month as a guest of Four Roses Bourbon, and besides drinking (I mean "tasting"), copious amounts of the amber-colored liquid gold I learned a few things about it that I had never known before. Most importantly: What makes bourbon bourbon, and distinguishes it from every other whiskey. Because while it's true every bourbon is whiskey, not every whiskey is bourbon.
So I sat down with Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller at Four Roses, and he told me there are 7 rules that a whiskey must follow, in order to be legally labeled as "bourbon." Think of them as laws handed down from the Distillers on High to protect those that of us enjoy this drink from ever sipping a false product. Here's what those rules are:
1. It must be a product of the USA.
Ever had a Canadian bourbon? A Scottish bourbon? Nope. And you never will. (Side note: 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky.)
2. It must be made of at least 51% corn.
You can play with the wheat, rye and other cereal grains all you want to get your own distinctive flavor profile, but if you go over 49%, and end up with less than 51% corn in your brew, you can no longer call it bourbon.
3. It must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80% alcohol). Go any higher, and you're in moonshine territory.
4. The whiskey must be entered into new, charred, American White Oak barrels. This is key to the flavor and uniqueness of bourbon. Unlike other distillers, bourbon makers can't use barrels that have aged other spirits before them. No used cognac barrels or scotch barrels. Or anything other than pure, brand new, charred White American Oak. Each batch of bourbon requires new barrels be made, keeping coopers in business.
5. It must be entered into those barrels at no greater than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol).
6. It must be aged at least 2 years.
Distillers have the option to age longer (according to Rutledge bourbon peaks at 6-8 years in the barrel), but if you pull it before two years to get it on the shelves sooner, you won't be able to put "bourbon" on the label.
7. It must have unadulterated flavor.
Those new honey bourbons and fruit bourbons you see on the market? They ain't bourbon. Look closely at the label. They may say something like "Made with 100% Kentucky straight bourbon and added flavors," but they can't be called "flavored bourbon" because technically anything that's flavored, or has anything added to it other than water, can't be considered a bourbon.
There's much more to bourbon that makes it unique, and those interesting facts are covered in part 2 of this article, 12 Things You Did't Know About Bourbon, But Really, Really Should.