Spirit Spotlight

Bourbon: The Spirit of America

Bourbon−is there a more quintessential American spirit? The Caribbean has rum, in Canada we celebrate our rye whisky, but in America, it has always been bourbon.

Corn whiskey was one of the first innovations to come from early American colonists, and what we now think of as bourbon evolved from the early settlers in Kentucky. Corn was plentiful, as it was one of the ways to stake your claim for land. If you happened to find land and plant a crop of corn, in the eyes of the government, you had settled that land and it was yours. Another contributor was the fact that Kentucky has unique water with many springs naturally filtering water over the state’s limestone geology. This is an integral difference as limestone filters out impurities in the water, most importantly iron, that would translate to unpleasant flavours in the bourbon. Fermentation is also maximized as the water comes out of the ground at an ideal temperature, a huge benefit in the days well before refrigeration. Of course, the predominance of Irish and Scottish settlers familiar with the workings of a still ensured people knew what to do with the abundant corn and ideal water source!

Surprisingly, given this Kentucky history, it is contended that bourbon is not named for Bourbon County in Kentucky, but rather takes its name from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Historian Michael Veach suggests that the name evolved because whiskey from Kentucky was sent down the river, in barrels, to New Orleans. Bourbon Street has been the hard-drinking locale we have known for many generations. It was there that the barrelaged whiskey from Kentucky developed a loyal following and was known to those who drank it not as whiskey from Kentucky, but as ‘that whiskey from Bourbon Street’. This moniker naturally shortened over time to the ‘bourbon whiskey’ we hear today.

Regardless of where the name may have come from, there are precise guidelines to what constitutes bourbon whiskey. It must be produced from at least 51% corn mash and it must be aged in new white oak barrels, most of which come from the white oak forests of Appalachia. Barrels can only be used once as the fresh char contributes to the complexity found in bourbon. During the production process, the whiskey cannot be distilled greater than 160 proof (80% ABV) and must be put in barrels for aging below 125 proof (62.5% ABV). Lastly, no artificial colouring or flavouring is allowed. Distillation can occur in any of the continental United States and be considered bourbon. It does not have to come from Kentucky, although 90% of bourbon available today is produced in Kentucky!

The flavour profile of bourbon is influenced by a number of things and there are many subtle differences. The level of corn used, upwards of 51%, causes an increase in the sweet, fruity flavours. Higher rye levels contribute boldness and spicy notes, sharing the spotlight with the corn sweetness. Some producers use wheat in the mash, and this encourages a taste profile with more caramel, vanilla, and toffee characteristics. The barrels must be charred, so there will always be a smoky element, but the intensity of the toast and carmelization, which creates complexity on the palate, will vary with the amount of char the distiller chooses for the barrels.

The alcohol by volume (ABV) will also affect the taste profile of bourbon. When bourbon is removed from the barrel to prepare it for bottling, a small amount of water is usually added back to make up for the evaporation that has occurred during aging. This softens the whiskey. Bourbon with an ABV of approximately 40 to 50% range will achieve this softness. If a bourbon is labeled ‘cask strength’ it has come out of the barrel and been bottled without the softening water addition. These are generally above 50% ABV and can occasionally reach into the 60% ABV range. These cask strength bottlings have a much spicier, intense flavour with notes of tobacco and leather. Regardless of the style preferred, bourbon is a complex and nuanced spirit with many subtleties.

Bourbon as a category has been increasing year over year, and while the premiumization of the category is relatively new, it is showing no sign of slowing. As with any aged spirit, there can be supply issues as the aging stock being released to the market catches up with demand. In Alberta, we are lucky enough to have in excess of 80 different bourbons to choose from, so you will always be able to offer your customer the right bourbon to pour over ice, stir into a cocktail, or sip neat.