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What is Kentucky Bourbon?

Remember learning this in school? “Not all insects are bugs but all bugs are insects.” Well, the same goes for bourbon. Not all bourbon is from Kentucky, but all Kentucky bourbon is true bourbon (although, Kentuckians would contend that only good bourbon is found in Kentucky). Today we’re going to review what Kentucky bourbon really is, its history, a few bourbon selections, and some frequently asked questions.

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So, what is Kentucky bourbon?

Kentucky bourbon is bourbon produced in Kentucky. It follows the same rules as straight bourbon for aging, barrel, flavor, and proof.

Bourbon is a type of American spirit, barrel aged, distilled in new oak charred barrels, and primarily made of corn. It must be distilled at a maximum of 160 proof, and aged at no more than 125 proof for a minimum of two years. Any bourbon aged for less than four years must be specified on the bottle. No coloring or flavoring is added to ensure integrity.

The History of Kentucky Bourbon

The history of Kentucky bourbon is rich, vast, and conflicting. According to bourbon historian Michael R. Veach’s book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, the first story contends the process was brought to Kentucky by settlers escaping the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), which primarily took place in western Pennsylvania. However, the distillation of whiskey predates the rebellion and settlers wouldn’t have wanted to stay in Kentucky as they were subject to arrest.

Other stories place the history with Scots-Irish settlers who brought distilling with them. Another legend claims Evan Williams is Kentucky’s first distiller (an assertion made by Reuben Durrett in 1892, claiming that Williams was making “whiskey that had been distilled from corn” since 1783). This is disproved in two ways: Williams didn’t come to Philadelphia from London until 1784 and second, there are more likely contenders and their names are Jacob Myers, and brother Joseph and Samuel Davis. Myers came to the Bluegrass state in 1779 and established a distillery and the Davis brothers brought forty-gallon copper pot stills with them on horseback in 1779.

The identity of Kentucky’s first distiller remains a mystery, but whatever the story, we’re glad for the product born from it.

As for why Kentucky was chosen, we can speculate that it’s a natural choice: water filtered through limestone and free of iron deposits which smooths out the flavor of bourbon, hot summers, and cold winters that allow the fermented liquid to move in and out of the charred barrel. It’s also located near key river systems critical to marketing and distributing. Kentucky found itself as the epicenter of the bourbon making industry.

Which Kentucky bourbons come recommended?

Popular Pick: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon

Winner of the Best in Class Gold Medal from the Whiskies of the World Awards, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon is aged using a double barrel process. It first ages for 6-12 months in a charred oak barrel and then another 24 months with the second barrel toasted before lightly charring, intensifying the depth of flavor in the bourbon.

A balanced mix of:

  • Vanilla
  • Caramel
  • Hazelnut
  • Fruits
  • Spice

This bourbon is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Taster's Club Pick: Barrell Bourbon

Barrell Bourbon Batch 27 was awarded the Double Gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2021. Distilled by Barrell Craft Spirits in Louisville, Kentucky, every batch blends bourbons from around the United States to create a new and unparalleled bourbon formula. This particular bourbon is a blend of 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, and 15-year old barrel selections and tastes of the unlikely bedfellows of:

  • Candy
  • Cherry
  • Lavender

Classic Pick: Four Roses Single Barrel

Seven time gold medalist in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon intrigues the taster with its delicate fruit flavors. Four Roses Distillery uses 2 mashbills and 5 yeast strains to create 10 different bourbon recipes. This recipe in particular is 100 proof with a mashbill of 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley. Flavor may vary depending on the bottle, as is typical with single barrel bourbons.

Kentucky Bourbon: Frequently Asked Questions

Why charred barrels?

This dates back to the early Roman Empire. Water and wine was stored in charred oak barrels to stay fresher for longer. The French appropriated this in the fifteenth century to flavor brandy and its signature cognac.

Interesting fact: cognac and other French brandies are considered to be the first spirits aged in wood.

Is there a difference between toasting and charring a barrel? 

The difference is in the way it’s heated and burned. In toasting, although heat is applied to the wood, it cannot catch on fire and burn. The heat breaks the cellulose in the wood and gives it flavors of vanilla. Charring occurs when the barrel catches fire and burns. Charring gives caramel flavors to the barrel. When combined, it creates bourbon that has both notes of vanilla and caramel.

What do you mean by "proof"?

Have you ever seen the abbreviation ABV? This means alcohol by volume. So, proof is the percentage of ABV doubled. So, 120 proof is 60 percent ABV.

Why is it called proof?

Distillers had to prove their product by gunpowder. This meant mixing their spirit with gunpowder and setting it on fire. Smoking meant it was under proof while quick burning meant over proof. The ideal was one hundred proof, when the burning was steady.

There you have it, readers: the complicated and oft-contested history of Kentucky bourbon. Next time you’re sipping bourbon fireside, you’ll be prepared with a story or two to bring to the campfire.

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