You love bourbon – everything about it: the glowing amber color, the spicy, smoky scent, and the sultry smooth taste of every sip. But how much do you really know about it?
A lot goes into making your favorite bourbon. In fact, there are rules that distillers must follow if they want to use the word “bourbon” on the label.
Let’s clarify what bourbon actually is. Bourbon is a type of whiskey (but whiskey is not always bourbon). Whiskey can be made any place on earth but bourbon must be made in the United States. While 95% of the world’s supply of bourbon comes from Kentucky, it can be produced anywhere in the U.S.
To be called bourbon, it has to be made from at least 51% corn, as noted on the mash bill. The mash bill is sort of like a list of ingredients: the mix of grains (corn, rye or wheat, and malted barley) that were used to make the bourbon.
Each of the grains has their own purpose. The master distiller carefully crafts the recipe after many variations. Corn gives bourbon its sweetness. Rye can be spicy or lend cinnamon or mint flavors. When wheat is used, the result is a sweeter product, sometimes with a hint of vanilla. The malted barley is necessary to convert starch to sugar. To be called bourbon, no flavorings or additives can be added.
The mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less. Proof tells you how strong the spirit is. If you look, you’ll see that it’s printed on every label. There is another requirement: it must be stored in new oak barrels at 125 proof or less. Depending on where barrels are stored in the rickhouse (where barrels rest on their side), the alcoholic content and the proof can change. Barrels stored on lower floors tend to lose alcoholic content so that means the proof decreases. When barrels are stored higher up, the alcohol content increases and so does its proof. During the bottling process, water can be added to lower the proof. Bourbon has to be bottled at no less than 80 proof.
Since bourbon must be stored in new oak barrels, that means there are a lot of barrels left over after each batch. Distillers have come up with a few options for all those empty barrels. Some send them to Scotland to be used for aging Scotch whiskey. Others supply microbreweries that choose to age beer in them.
Speaking of aging, straight bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years. Bourbon that has been aged for less than 4 years will have a statement on the label so that customers know how long it has been aged. Fun fact: the darker the bourbon, the longer it has been aged.
Some bourbons are taken from multiple barrels and blended for a consistent flavor. Others are noted as being single barrel. There is no blending. It goes straight from barrel to bottle, with a little water added to get the proof just right.
There are many ways to enjoy bourbon. Some people prefer to drink it “straight” which means that the bourbon is first placed in a glass with ice to cool it. Then it is strained into a serving glass. When ordered “neat,” you’ll get a drink that is room temperature, poured right from the bottle. But those aren’t your only options. Bourbon is the basis for many cocktails such as a classic Old Fashioned, a Manhattan, Kentucky Coffee, Bourbon Tea and even a Mint Julep.
At K9 and Coffee, we proudly serve WhistlePig Boss Hog bourbon. Our friends at WhistlePig in Vermont commit to 5 promises for every release:
“It will be single barrel, bottled at proof, powerfully complex, distinctly unique from anything we have created before, and it will be stupendous.”
Be sure to try Boss Hog Siren’s Song the next time you stop in. To sample a few different varieties, order a flight of four. Soon you’ll have a favorite to order every time you come in.