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Our whiskey expert Jay Erisman answers your questions.
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 provide critical flavors, or the mineral-rich Kentucky limestone water that nurtured early settlers and distilleries and horses. To read Jay Erisman’s fuller account story of Bourbon, click here.
What’s the difference between Bourbon and whiskey?
Bourbon is a whiskey, the native spirit of the United States of America. Other major whiskeys of the world include those from Scotland (Scotch), Ireland, Canada, and Japan. Whiskey is also produced in a slew of other countries—including Wales, France, Austria, and India, all available at The Party Source—but the five aforementioned countries are by far the important ones in whiskey production.
What is Bourbon made from?
Like all whiskeys, it is made from grain. By law, Bourbon is made from a legal minimum 51% corn. Most Bourbons use somewhere between 70-80% corn, with at least two additional grains as well. Collectively these additional grains are called “small grains,” referring both to the smaller amounts used as well as their physically smaller grain size compared to fat corn kernels.
One small grain is malted barley, which supplies enzymes derived from the malting process which help to turn the starches in the corn into sugars, which are then converted by yeast into alcohol. (However, it is possible to make a Bourbon without malted grains, by adding the enzymes by themselves; this has been done at Tuthilltown Spirits, in their 100% corn “Baby Bourbon.”)
The other grain is used to add flavor to the whiskey. In the great majority of Bourbons, this is rye, which adds a lovely spiciness to the whiskey. Therefore, most Bourbons are made out of corn with smaller amounts of malted barley and rye. However, some Bourbon recipes have replaced the rye with wheat, which adds a softer flavor, perhaps a gentler texture as well, and in general helps make a lighter whiskey. These are referred to as “wheated” Bourbons, and include Maker’s Mark, W.L. Weller and other Weller whiskeys, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Van Winkle.
Does Bourbon have to be made in Kentucky?
Bourbon has to be made in one of the 50 states which are united into this great country of ours. Kentucky is the historical home of Bourbon; the very name comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, which today is a small county with no distilleries but which in the 1790s comprised about half the state. Some people claim that Kentucky is the only state allowed the honorific of placing its name in the title, as in “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” In fact, no such legislation or requirement exists.
Which Bourbons are “sour mash”?
All Bourbons made today, and for that matter all Bourbons made in living memory, utilize the sour mash technique. Some Bourbon brands make mention of this on the label, thus creating the illusion that some Bourbons are sour mash and some are not. But in fact everything regularly made today is sour mash. Sour mash refers to the addition to the freshly cooked Bourbon mash of a small portion of “setback,” or spent mash from a previous fermentation. This setback is sour, hence the name, and serves to create a beneficial environment for the yeast that will ferment the mash. Sour mash is an important step in making Bourbon, but it is not necessary and certainly not required by law. In fact, early American whiskeys probably did not employ a sour mash technique; indeed, Woodford Reserve Distillery in 2008 released a Distiller’s Edition “Sweet Mash” Bourbon made without the addition of sour mash.
Who invented Bourbon?
No single individual can be credited with inventing Bourbon. It evolved in the state of Kentucky when distillers (as often as not, also farmers) moved from the Northeast into Kentucky in the 1790s and 1800s. That said, certain early distillers are rightfully credited with being among the first wave of Kentucky distillers, though at this time there was no such thing as “Bourbon” per se, only corn whiskey made on the arm. The Rev. Elijah Craig is said to have distilled from 1789, and often gets credit not only for “inventing” Bourbon but for aging whiskey in charred oak casks. Both honors are inaccurate, as Craig was merely one of many score of early Kentucky settler distillers, and barrels were a common means of transporting whiskey to market.
Why is Kentucky limestone water important in making Bourbon?
From a Scottish burn to a Kentucky branch, whiskey distilleries all over the world depend on a ready source of good quality water, both for making a liquid mash out of grain and for cooling the distilled alcoholic vapors. Looking at a Kentucky map, it’s apparent that among the state’s riches are a vigorous network of streams, brooks, and creeks. So to some extent, the watersheds of such rivers as the Kentucky and the Salt provide a welcome home for distilling. Below this is a unique geological feature, the extensive limestone reservoirs of fresh water, known as a karst formation. This limestone water is relatively soft, and free from such undesirable components as iron. Thus Kentucky sits on a goldmine of fresh water, a terrific place to build a whiskey industry. Surely Kentucky limestone water is of excellent quality, but it is not essential to making good whiskey. In fact, whiskey distilleries in Louisville use the city water supply, pulled from the Ohio River (which the distilleries extensively treat and purify before turning into whiskey).
Is Jack Daniels a Bourbon?
Jack Daniels proudly identifies as a Tennessee whiskey, as does George Dickel. Both distilleries make whiskey that is for all intents and purposes identical to Bourbon, with one important difference. After distillation, the raw whiskey is filtered through maple charcoal. The two distilleries each have their own version of this so-called Lincoln County Process, but essentially maple wood is burned into charcoal, which is loaded into a tall vat, through which the unaged whiskey slowly filters before going into barrels for aging. Other than this process, Tennessee whiskey is made identically to Bourbon, indeed, both Jack Daniels and George Dickel conform to all standards of identity for Bourbon whiskey. Over the years, Daniels and Dickel have become established as “Tennessee whiskey,” a type separate from Bourbon and rye.
Having established these facts, one ventures into a realm of conjecture as to why Tennessee whiskey is different than Bourbon, why it is “unique,” or why it “cannot” be Bourbon. Depending on whom you talk to—that is to say, a distiller in Kentucky or one in Tennessee—the Lincoln County Process (LCP) either disqualifies the spurious whiskey from being a Bourbon, or confers such splendid idiosyncrasy upon the distillate as to warrant its own distinct category. Indeed, Reagor Motlow in 1941 wrote a letter about his Jack Daniels label to the Treasury Department, and further visited the Bureau Alcohol Tax Unit with samples for their perusal. Their findings that “the whiskey in question has neither the characteristics of bourbon or rye whiskey but rather a distinctive product which may be labeled whiskey” seems to have laid the foundation for “Tennessee whiskey” as a type separate from other American whiskeys. The Kentucky side of the argument holds that the LCP adds a certain smoky, sooty flavor which disqualifies the product as a Bourbon because no flavors may be added to Bourbon after distillation.
My take is that charcoal filtration as in the LCP cannot be considered as an addition of a “flavoring material” as prohibited in the standards of identity, and Jack Daniels and George Dickel could be labeled as Bourbon if the producers wanted to do so. Far from disqualifying Jack and George as Bourbons, the LCP and Tennessee whiskey were promoted by Mr. Motlow as creating a distinctive type from Bourbon. Perhaps Motlow has the last laugh, since Jack Daniels is today the world’s biggest selling whiskey, and an international drinks icon on the level of Dom Perignon and Johnnie Walker. His famous, even infamous, black label proudly wears the label of Tennessee whiskey—but it doesn’t have to, not by law.
(For further reading on the subject, read this extensive thread from StraightBourbon.com, in particular the erudite arguments of whiskey writer and lawyer Chuck Cowdery, and the text of the 1941 Treasury letter from StraightBourbon user bobbyc. Also note that the LCP is different from the “charcoal filtered” process stated on the labels of certain Bourbons, which refers to a filtration process applied to aged whiskey at the time of bottling.)
What does the term “barrel strength” mean?
“Barrel strength” or “barrel proof” refer to a whiskey that is bottled without the addition of water to reduce the proof. Typically Bourbon comes out of the barrel at 110 to 130 proof, sometimes more, and is diluted with water to a bottling proof of 100 proof or 90 or 80 or whatever. A whiskey bottled with no dilution, at the full strength of the whiskey in the barrel, is variously called barrel strength or barrel proof, or in Scotland cask strength. Commercial examples include Bookers, from Jim Beam, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, and George T. Stagg, which has clocked in as high as 142.7 proof. A much-loved and long gone 16-year-old bottling of Willett Family Reserve by The Party Source holds the high water mark for the strongest Bourbon we’ve ever sold, 73.5% alcohol by volume, or 147 proof.
What does the term “single barrel” mean?
A Bourbon labeled as “single barrel” means the whiskey in the bottle came out of one single barrel only, and was not mixed with multiple barrels prior to bottling. Normally when a distiller makes a bottling run for a given whiskey, he dumps the whiskey from many barrels into a large tank, where they are filtered, diluted with water, and sent to a bottling line. For a single barrel Bourbon, the distiller selects only a single barrel out of the rest for its particularly good quality or certain special flavor and bottles it separately. It is still filtered and diluted, but is not mixed with any other barrels. Purportedly a single barrel Bourbon has a special flavor and quality over and above a whiskey composed of many barrels mixed together. The first Bourbon to be bottled as a single barrel was Blanton’s, released in 1984 by the distillery today known as Buffalo Trace.
What does the term “small batch” mean?
Small batch refers to a bottling consisting of relatively fewer barrels in a batch. Normally, when a distiller bottles a batch of whiskey, he may mix together (or “mingle,” in industry parlance) many dozens, even hundreds of barrels together in a large tank for bottling. A small batch Bourbon supposedly comprises many fewer barrels, with an eye to maintaining a higher quality or a particular flavor. A small batch might comprise only the whiskey from a certain area in a certain warehouse at a narrow age range, for example. However, there is no agreed upon or legal requirement for what constitutes a “small” batch. If a given distiller normally bottles 250 barrels at a time, then a 75 barrel batch would be “small,” while another distiller’s “small batch” Bourbon might come from only eight barrels at a time. Jim Beam, with their Small Batch Collection released in 1992, was the first to popularize the term.
What does “non-chill-filtered” or “unfiltered” mean?
“Non-chill-filtered” refers to a whiskey bottled without the cold filtration that nearly all whiskeys, American and otherwise, are subjected to during the bottling process. This process is called chill filtration, and involves chilling the whiskey (sometimes to temperatures below the freezing point of water) before passing it through a filter consisting of many pads of paper or other material. Chill filtration clarifies the whiskey cosmetically, and ensures that it can be diluted and bottled at lower proofs, or chilled as with ice cubes in the glass, without turning cloudy. Unfortunately, the process also typically removes a portion of flavor and texture and even color from the whiskey in the barrel. This does not mean that chill filtered whiskey is somehow ruined; obviously the vast majority of whiskeys are filtered and are still totally delicious. But the best way to bottle a whiskey, in my opinion and that of many other writers and drinkers, is without chill filtration. (In shorthand, this could be termed “unfiltered”, though this convenient descriptor should not be taken to mean that the whiskey receives no filtration at all. All whiskeys would pass through a coarse barrier filter to remove barrel char, splinters, etc.)
This is easier said than done, because without filtration, the whiskey will turn cloudy when reduced to 80 or 90 proof for bottling. Most consumers would look askance at a cloudy bottle of whiskey on the shelf or the bar. Thus whiskey needs to be bottled at a higher proof in order to be un-chill-filtered. For Scotch, this is usually 92 proof, and a number of single malts are so bottled without chill filtration, at 92 proof.. Bottling Bourbon without chill filtration, however, is more problematic.
When the whiskey is chilled (and this would be whiskey straight from the barrel, undiluted) before filtering, the lower temperature causes various substances to drop out of suspension and turn the whisky cloudy. This happens at low temperatures, but it also happens when water is added to the whiskey. So the whole reason for chill filtration is to allow the producer to dilute the whiskey to a lower proof, yet have it remain clear on the shelf. And at the end of the day, the ability to bottle whisky at 80 proof is pretty important, economically speaking, since a high proof unfiltered bottling will cost significantly more than the 80 proof whiskey. Unfortunately, those substances that turn the whiskey cloudy (including fatty acids and esters) are some of the very components that are responsible for some of the flavor, aroma, and even the texture of a whiskey. Stripping them out of a whiskey during chill filtration does stabilize the whiskey, but at the cost of some of the aroma, flavor and texture.
Unfiltered Scotch can be diluted as far as 92 proof, occasionally even less, and still remain clear. But Bourbon has more of those fatty acids, esters and other goodies, due to several factors including the oily quality of corn, and in particular the new oak barrel required of all Bourbon. In short, Bourbon has a lot more stuff in it that can turn the whiskey cloudy (or even chunky!). In the end, it is very difficult to bottle a Bourbon sans filtration at anything less than full barrel proof. And barrel proof costs a lot more money, with fewer bottles obtained from each barrel as well as higher tax rates on the high alcohol content. So while bottling unfiltered is a viable option for many Scotches, it is rare to find unfiltered American whiskeys.
The practice of bottling without chill filtration grew in popularity in Scotland thanks to purist-minded distilleries such as Springbank, Bruichladdich, and Ardbeg as well as many independent single malt Scotch bottlers who follow this practice.