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What is Bourbon?

The short answer to the question above is: Bourbon whiskey is the native drink of the United States of America. Its main ingredient is corn; it is aged in new charred oak barrels, and it's named after a French royal family. In these three facts alone, Bourbon reflects many truths about America: our landscape and climate, our agriculture, our history. There are many other important facts about Bourbon - such as the small amounts of other grains blended with the corn that provides critical flavors, or the mineral-rich Kentucky limestone water that nurtured early settlers and distilleries and horses. And despite another fact that only ten Kentucky distilleries are actively distilling Bourbon today, we are living in a new golden era of Bourbon, with specialist bottlings from single barrels, experimental whiskeys, and the resurgence of rye whiskey, Bourbon's older brother. It's a good time to be a Bourbon lover ... and a good time to be the Best Bourbon Store in America.
Read on ...


America's Native Drink: Born of the Branch, the Amber Waves, and Named for a French King

Considering the wealth of natural resources that awaited European colonists in the New World, perhaps it is no surprise that Bourbon whiskey was created. Bourbon is far more than merely a European-style spirit made on another continent. It truly reflects the land around it, from the water, to the grain, to the industry. Bourbon was not the first whiskey created in America; that would be rye, which sprang up in the Northeast where that European grain grew well in poor, rocky soil. (When George Washington died in 1799, he left behind perhaps America's largest whiskey distillery, which has recently been reconstructed and is again producing whiskey. He made rye, and noted "demand for this article ..is brisk.") By the time Kentucky was settled, the grain of choice had turned to corn, and a true native American whiskey emerged from the wilderness.

The other main ingredient in whiskey, water, was also plentiful in Kentucky and, moreover, of exceptional quality thanks to the huge limestone reservoirs that underlie much of the state. Wherever there was water, there would be a mill, to process all that corn. And next to the mill would be a distillery, creating a value-added concentrate of corn. These same waters created the extensive river systems that conducted the business of whiskey to markets downstream. And when the whiskey was identified by the then-huge county it shipped from, it happened to get named for the French royal family which had proven so useful in the recently concluded war of revolution. Bourbon was born.

The last ingredient in Bourbon's formula is also unique to America. To this day, the American forestry industry ranks among the most productive in the world. Vast, trackless forests greeted early settlers; it was said a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching ground. And that squirrel would have had plenty of acorns on the way, so common were oak trees in those northern, soon-to-be-united States. Thus new oak barrels were relatively easy to come by. In Scotland, by comparison, forests had long been depleted and turned into, among other things, the Royal Navy; additionally, the higher latitude of that country was not quite as well suited to oak as to pine and other conifer species. In 1900 only 5% of Scotland was covered by trees (see Scottish Forestry Commission pdf). Today, about 17% of Scotland is forest (and just 2% oak) compared to 33% of the United States. So while European whiskey traditions hinged on used oak barrels, Bourbon could benefit from the rapid maturation of a readily available, affordable new barrel.


How Bourbon Cracked the Brown Spirit Code

That new oak barrel was the final piece of a solution to a puzzle that has vexed distillers for ages: how to make high quality aged, brown spirit in a short amount of time. Make no mistake, distillers in Scotland, Ireland, and America circa 1825 were not aging their whiskey for long years. Whiskey at that time would have been rather different from the 12-year-old single malts and the bonded Bourbons we enjoy today. That said, four years of aging is rather too young for Scottish pot-stilled malt, which typically wants twice that long in the cask. France at that time had been making well-aged brandies from the Charente and other regions for the better part of a century-but Cognac, and its cousins Armagnac and Calvados, require perhaps ten years in wood before reaching a level of seriously good quality. (And French oak, while of outstanding quality, is expensive to work into barrels, compared to American white oak.) Bourbon can be delicious at just four years, and at eight years of age-which is whisky adolescence, at best, in Scotland-it can drink like a world classic.

Thus in America, distillers chanced upon one of the great serendipities of drink: plenty of malleable, affordable white oak trees just waiting to be planed into staves at one of many water-powered sawmills, and corn, a native grain well-adapted to a hot climate and with many times the productivity of barley, that moreover yielded a robust distillate that could stand up to the rapid aging curve of a new oak barrel. And once such captains of industry as E.H. Taylor revolutionized the whiskey trade in the 1870s, the efficiencies of American whiskey increased even more as distilleries grew to the size of small factories. Today, when a tasty dram like six-year-old Heaven Hill 100 proof sells for less than $10 at The Party Source, we can say Bourbon is the best value aged spirit, even distilled spirit of any sort, in the world.


Bourbon's Purity

Perhaps because Bourbon comes by its quality and deep color in a few short years, its producers did not see the need to take shortcuts. Indeed, in the face of a sea of "rectified" whiskey blended and colored and adulterated in any number of ways, E.H. Taylor and others at the end of the 19th century were pushing measures to restrict the definition of whiskey to the pure article. The Taft administration was among the first governments to weigh in on this debate, and further regulations and legislation in the 1940s and 1964 have resulted in considerable legal restrictions upon Bourbon. Basically, American straight whiskeys are among the most protected spirit in the world. Compare the following brown spirits:

Legal requirements, restrictions, additivesCognacSingle Malt ScotchCanadian whiskeyStraight Bourbon
Aged in woodYesYesYesYes
New barrelNoNoNoYes
Minimum ageTwo yearsThree yearsThree yearsTwo years
ColoringPermittedPermittedOK, plus "flavouring"Forbidden
Sugar solutionPermittedForbiddenOK, as "flavouring"Forbidden
Oak extractPermittedForbiddenOK, as "flavouring"Forbidden


This is not to diminish the greatness and glory of Cognac and malt Scotch; both are clearly first ballot hall-of-famers in the world of spirits. But Scotches are routinely treated with caramel coloring to make a pale, young whisky appear like an old one, which additive is sometimes plainly evident in the flavor. And Cognac, along with coloring, allows for a small amount of sugar solution to smooth out a harsh young brandy and oak extract (boisé), which simulates barrel aging. Of course, Cognac is an honest product of fine quality (in particular, from such artisan single estate producers as Daniel Bouju, whose austerely dry brandies are additive-free; and Château de Beaulon, using organic viticulture and heirloom grapes)-but the vast majority of Cognac is colored, and frequently sugared and boisé-ed as well. Canadian whisky permits, in addition to coloring, the outright addition of "flavouring," up to 9.09% of the total proof alcohol in a whisky. Not so American straight whiskey, which rates among the purest spirits in the world; indeed, it is the only one which has the built-in quality control of a new barrel every time.


The Letter of the Law

Here, then, are the regulations for straight American whiskey, including Bourbon, excerpted directly from the standards of definition contained in the Code of Federal Regulations. Mouseover the bolded words for the most relevant parts.

  • §5.22 The standards of identity.
  • Standards of identity for the several classes and types of distilled spirits set forth in this section shall be as follows (see also §5.35, class and type): [...]
  • (1)(i) "Bourbon whisky", "rye whisky", "wheat whisky", "malt whisky", or "rye malt whisky" is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° prooffrom a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. [...]
  • (iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as "straight"; for example, "straight bourbon whisky".... No other whiskies may be designated "straight".
  • (l)Class 12; products without geographical designations but distinctive of a particular place. (1) The whiskies of the types specified in paragraphs (b) (1), (4), (5), and (6) of this section aredistinctive products of the United States...
  • § 5.23 Alteration of class and type.
  • (a)alters the class and type thereof and the product shall be appropriately redesignated.
  • (3) "Harmless coloring, flavoring, and blending materials" shall not include...(iii) any material whatsoever in the case of...straight whiskey.

The regulations above will clear up most, but not all, of the myths and misconceptions that surround Bourbon. Certain distilling practices are of course not covered in the regulations. The use of "sour mash" is a good example. We all have an uncle or a grandmother who "only drank sour mash, yes sir, 'cause that's the good stuff." In truth, every Bourbon (or rye) whiskey on the vast shelves of The Party Source is made with a sour mash technique. Some of them state it on the label, some don't, but all of them use it. Sour mash refers to the addition to freshly cooked grains of a small portion of previously fermented mash, that is, the mash of corn and other grains that is fermented into a beer before distillation. This leftover mash is sour, hence the name, and serves to introduce a stable, friendly environment for the yeast that will ferment the beer. Sour mash is an important (though not essential) step in Bourbon making, but it really gets far more attention than it deserves.


The Return of the King: Bourbon in the 21st Century

Walk down aisle 16A at The Party Source and you'll find a seemingly endless array of American whiskey brands. Yet all that whiskey is made by just ten Kentucky distilleries and two in Tennessee. That's it. (An increasing number of American microdistilleries are making Bourbon-including one right here in Greater Cincinnati-as well as an array of other whiskeys.)

At the turn of the 20th century, E.H. Taylor was testifying before Congress to the quality of true Bourbon; Teddy Roosevelt was laying down whiskey laws like a Solomon; bonded whiskey was aging gracefully in government-approved warehouses; and the first Golden Era of American whiskey was in full swing. But the 20th century turned out to be pretty hard on Bourbon. Literally hundreds of distilleries closed when Prohibition cast its puritanical shadow on the land. Changing tastes from the 1960s onward further depressed American whiskey in favor of lighter spirits. When Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1973, Louisville alone had declined from more than 20 distilleries to less than 10; today there are only two distilleries working in Louisville.

Happily, America from the mid-1980s rediscovered flavor in many guises, whiskey among them, and the wave of fascination with single malt Scotch whisky helped boost Bourbon's profile. Above and beyond mere popularity, signs of a real return to health abounded in the Bourbon industry, such as the resuscitation or reopening of distilleries. The George T. Stagg Distillery at Frankfort, popularly called Ancient Age, was down to 50 employees and in danger of closing when the Sazerac Company from New Orleans purchased it in 1993; after some restoration, it was rechristened Buffalo Trace Distillery, and today is acclaimed as a world classic. The Labrot & Graham Distillery, Kentucky's oldest existing distillery, underwent extensive reconstruction by new owners Brown-Forman, and today as Woodford Reserve produces a wildly successful premium bottling. Four Roses Distillery saw their outstanding straight Bourbon return to the American market in 2003 after an exile of half a century. And in 2009, Angostura announced the purchase of the old Medley Distillery in Owensboro, with plans to restore it to operational status.

And if that's not enough, the Bourbon bottled today might be better than ever. Starting with the first single barrel Bourbon, Blanton's in 1984, distilleries have released ever-more-exquisite, well-aged, unique whiskeys, sometimes tricked out as single barrel, small batch, barrel proof, and unfiltered bottlings. Whiskeys such as Four Roses Barrel Strength, Willett Family Estate, Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection, and others offer the Bourbon enthusiast the kind of exotic whiskeys previously missing in the Bourbon industry. Other projects have pushed innovation to a new level, such as Buffalo Trace's Experimental whiskeys, which range from French oak barrel-aging to my own experiments for The Party Source. For their Master's Collection series, Woodford Reserve even revived the pre-modern technique of "sweet mash," a whiskey made without the infamous sour mash method. And straight rye whiskey, Bourbon's predecessor, is in the full flowering of an outright renaissance, as mixologists and whiskey drinkers inhale the spicy character of this noble old whiskey.

In short, we are living in a second golden age of American whiskey. Neither foreign imports nor changing tastes, nor corporate conglomeration, not even outright prohibition have dimmed America's love affair with its native spirit. The Party Source is proud to promote and sell Kentucky's signature product, and honored to be at the vanguard of merchants selling American whiskey. Please do raise a glass in honor of the distillers, bottlers, warehousemen, farmers and coopers who brought Bourbon to you down through the centuries. It won't cost you much, and whether single barrel or half-gallon jug, it will be good and true...and sour mash...and American.

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