Tasting Bourbon, America’s Native Spirit
Feel that? It’s your heart, swelling with national pride every time a bottle of bourbon is cracked for the first time. Bourbon is the only spirit category that must be produced in the United States, our national equivalent of Tequila or Cognac. It’s also going through a colossal renaissance after some tough years in the 1980s and 1990s. If you haven’t reacquainted yourself with America’s native spirit, now’s the time.
WHAT IS BOURBON?
Bourbon is a whiskey, although not all whiskeys are bourbon. What makes bourbon special? First, it must be made from at least 51% corn. Often, it’s quite a bit more than that. Many of the mainstream bourbons are anywhere from 65% to 80% corn.
The remainder of the grain bill can technically be anything (even more corn). But in practice, most bourbons include somewhere between eight and 15% malted barley, which contributes valuable enzymes that help turn the starches in the other grains into smaller molecules yeast can digest. The final portion, often referred to as the “third grain” or “flavoring grain,” is chosen based on flavor alone, and it’s usually rye or wheat. Rye tends to produce spicy or herbal bourbons, while wheat tends to produce sweet and fruity bourbons.
Bourbon also must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol. This restriction ensures that the distillation process isn’t so intense that it strips out all the flavor from the grains.
Finally, and perhaps most famously, bourbon must be aged in a new, charred oak container. This is probably the single most significant factor contributing to bourbon’s unique flavor, and it’s certainly the most significant factor setting it apart from other whiskeys like Scotch, Canadian whisky, and Irish whiskey, which are most frequently aged in used barrels.
New, charred oak casks are very potent, quickly contributing deep color, smoky vanilla aroma, and sweet flavor to spirits aging inside. That potency decreases over time, and as barrels are used a second, third, or fourth time, their flavor-giving power begins to diminish. If bourbon were tea, it’s tea made with a fresh tea bag every time—no double-steeping allowed.
WHY DOES KENTUCKY MAKE SO MUCH BOURBON?
Kentucky is far and away the most famous state for bourbon production, so much so that one of the most common misunderstandings about bourbon is that it must be made in the Bluegrass State. While bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, the vast majority of bourbon is indeed still produced in Kentucky.
Why? Kentucky distillers will tell you it’s the water, which filters through deep limestone deposits to achieve purity and a specific mineral profile. They’re not wrong. Limestone water seems to make an impact when it comes to whiskey production and bourbon production specifically, with some saying it helps supply critical minerals during fermentation and supports the production of esters, the chemical compounds responsible for fruitiness.
Yet historical immigration trends, tradition, and a bit of good old-fashioned politicking also play a major role. Many Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in the region that would become Kentucky, bringing whiskey distillation traditions with them. The area’s rural character and remote valleys were conducive to evading the tax man, leading to the flourishing of illicit distillation and moonshining in the 1800s.
During Prohibition, many of the established Kentucky distilleries closed, while others lobbied to be awarded licenses to produce alcohol for “medicinal purposes,” allowing them to stay afloat while the rest of the industry imploded. After Prohibition, those Kentucky distilleries that had stayed in production had a massive head start, with warehouses still full of aging stocks and the ability to start selling aged whiskey right away.
Other distilleries had to begin the arduous process of rebuilding their stocks, but many in the more industrialized north had long converted their buildings to other types of factories. By weathering Prohibition better than anywhere else, Kentucky positioned itself to be the leader in bourbon production for generations after Prohibition had been repealed.
Now we’re getting to the good part: actually tasting the stuff
- First, take a look at your bottle of bourbon. Does it say “straight bourbon” on the bottle? That means it’s at least two years old and is the product of a single distillery, among other quality measures. Does it say “Bottled-in-bond?” That means it’s at least four years old and it’s bottled at 100 proof, a bit stronger than the standard 80 proof. Of course, it might not say either of those things, and that’s OK too—what matters is how it tastes.
- Now, pour yourself about one and a half ounces in a tasting glass. The standard Glencairn spirits tasting glass works well, but the Kentucky Bourbon Trail recently put out a specialized bourbon tasting glass with a wider bowl and neck. Of course, a straight-sided rocks glass works fine as well, or even a small stemmed glass like you might use for sherry.
- Next, gently nose the bourbon—the operative word here being “gently.” If you plunge your nose into the glass and sniff too aggressively, you risk smelling nothing but ethanol for the next 10 minutes. Start from further away than you think, and slowly work your way towards the rim of the glass.One of the best places to start identifying aromas in bourbon is the oak. Do you notice aromas of vanilla, baking spices, coconut, caramel, smoke, or even dill? Those are all classic aromas imparted by American oak, and they can show up in some surprising ways. You may also notice fruit aromas, especially stone fruits like cherry, plum, and apricot, or even grainy notes like corn on the cob, baked bread, or pastry. Some bourbons even display tertiary aromas that come from years of maturation, like leather and tobacco.
- Now it’s time to take a sip. Take a small sip, let it coat your tongue, swallow, and then breathe out through your nose. Revisit the aromas you sensed when smelling. Do those carry through to the palate? Do new flavors develop? What’s the finish like—long, short, crisp, spicy, or smoky? And, most importantly, do you like drinking it?
Tasting bourbon this way is a change for folks who are used to kicking back shots at the bar, but we think the chance to slow down, savor the products from all those hard-working distillers, and really experience the centuries of tradition that led up to that drink in your glass is a reward in and of itself. Cheers!