What Makes Bourbon, Bourbon?

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Bourbon.  Not only my favorite spirit, but one that is found on nearly every tailgate in the Fall.  I’ve been to my share of those tailgates, and each time I’m asked to reveal the libation in my cup, my answer will usually lead to some spirited conversation over the facts and misconceptions about bourbon.  I do not claim to be a bourbon connoisseur, but I am a huge fan of the spirit, here to set the record straight. 

Bourbon County, Kentucky

The greatest myth of all involves one of the three original counties in Kentucky.  Bourbon County is synonymous with Bourbon whiskey, but merely in name only.  Folks from this county in the heart of the Bluegrass region, feel certain that Bourbon whiskey was first distilled in their county by early settlers in the 1700’s.  Barrels of the spirit, stamped from Bourbon County, made their way down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to New Orleans.  Soon, whiskey from Bourbon County grew in popularity and simply became known as Bourbon whiskey. 

This is where the similarities end.  I often hear that, “Bourbon can only be Bourbon if it comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky.”  Not true at all.  Bourbon whiskey can be produced anywhere in the United States as long as the production of it follows strict guidelines.  In fact, as of today,  Bourbon County has no active bourbon distilleries!

Tennessee vs. Kentucky

I’m not talking about the “Battle for the Beer Barrel”, but rather the names Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.  True, the majority of bourbon whiskey is made in Kentucky save all but a few brands.  Only the state of Kentucky can produce bourbon with its’ name on the label.  

From Tennessee, a well known whiskey named Jack Daniel’s proudly does not consider itself a bourbon.   Though it is produced by the same strict guidelines as its’ brethren from Kentucky, Jack Daniel’s goes through the extra step of charcoal filtering (made from hard sugar maple).  This, the distiller proudly claims, makes Jack Daniel’s a Tennessee Whiskey, not a bourbon. 

Bourbon Whiskey vs. All Other Whiskey

Maybe you’ve heard that, “all bourbons are whiskey, but all whiskeys are not bourbons.”   Our government actually has standards for ‘Straight Bourbon Whiskey’.  By law, bourbon must be:

1.  Produced in the U.S.A.

2.  Made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn.

3.  Distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% ABV).

4.  No flavoring or coloring additives allowed.

5.  Aged in new, charred oak barrels. (Gives bourbon its’ color)

6.  Aged for a minimum of two years.

These and only these strict guidelines make Bourbon, Bourbon.    So, the next time you hear a heated dispute over this sweetly made spirit, step in and set the record straight, before somebody spills their Bourbon and Coke.   Cheers!