Bourbon whiskey is a type of American whiskey: a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name is ultimately derived from the French Bourbon dynasty, although it is disputed whether the namesake Kentucky county or New Orleans street inspired the whiskey's name. Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century. The name "Bourbon" was not applied until the 1850s, and the Kentucky etymology was not advanced until the 1870s. While the liquor may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with the American South in general, and Kentucky in particular.
The origin of bourbon is not well documented. There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others. For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to a pioneering Baptist minister and distiller named Elijah Craig. Rev. Craig (credited with many Kentucky firsts, e.g., fulling mill, paper mill, ropewalk, etc.) is said to also be the first to age the distillation in charred oak casks, "a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique taste". Across the county line in Bourbon County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product as "Bourbon whiskey". Spears' home, Stone Castle, warehouse and spring house survive; one can drive by the Spears' home on Clay-Kiser Road.
Although still popular and often repeated, the Craig legend has little credibility. Similarly, the Spears story is a local favorite, rarely repeated outside the county. There likely was no single "inventor" of bourbon, which developed into its present form only in the late 19th century. Essentially any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey (and charring the barrels) for better flavor had also been known in Europe for centuries. The use of the local American corn for the "mash" and oak for the barrels was making use of local materials by European-American settlers. The late date of the Bourbon County etymology has led Louisville historian Michael Veach to dispute its authenticity. He proposes that the whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port where the Tarascon brothers' shipments of Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac.
Distilling probably was brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including, English, Irish, Welsh, German and French) who began to farm the area in earnest. The spirit they made evolved, and became known as bourbon in the early 19th century due to its historical association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon (this consisted of the original Bourbon County of Virginia as organized in 1785, a region that included much of today's Eastern Kentucky – including 34 of today's counties in Kentucky. One is the current Bourbon County of Kentucky).
When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped. "Old Bourbon" was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.
A refinement variously credited to either James C. Crow or Jason S. Amburgey was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation is conditioned with some amount of spent mash (the wet solids strained from a previous batch of fermented mash, which still contain live yeast). Spent mash is also known as spent beer, distillers' spent grain, stillage, and slop or feed mash, so named because it is used as animal feed. The acid introduced by using the sour mash controls the growth of bacteria that could taint the whiskey and creates a proper pH balance for the yeast to work.
As of 2005[update], all straight bourbons use a sour mash process. Crow or Amburgey developed this refinement while working at the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (now the Woodford Reserve Distillery) in Woodford County, Kentucky. As of today, there are no operating distilleries within the current boundaries of Bourbon County — due to new counties being formed from Bourbon County over time.
A resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1964 declared bourbon to be a "distinctive product of the United States." That resolution asked "the appropriate agencies of the United States Government... [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as 'Bourbon Whiskey.'" Federal regulation now defines "bourbon whisky" to only include "bourbon" produced in the United States.
Since 2003, high-end bourbons have seen revenue grow from $450 million to over $500 million, some 2.2 million cases, in the United States. High-end bourbon sales accounted for eight percent of total spirits growth in 2006. Most high-end bourbons are aged for six years or longer.
In 2007, United States spirits exports, virtually all of which are American whiskey, exceeded $1 billion for the first time. This represents a 15 percent increase over 2006. American whiskey is now sold in more than 100 countries. The leading markets are the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Japan. Key emerging markets for American whiskey are China, Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Romania, and Bulgaria.[clarification needed]
Bourbon's legal definition varies somewhat from country to country, but many trade agreements require the name bourbon to be reserved for products made in the United States. The U.S. regulations for labeling and advertising bourbon apply only to products made for consumption within the United States; they do not apply to distilled spirits made for export. Canadian law requires products labeled bourbon to be made in the United States and also to conform to the requirements that apply within the United States. But in countries other than the United States and Canada, products labeled bourbon may not adhere to the same standards. For example, in the European Union, products labeled as bourbon are not required to conform to all of the regulations that apply within the United States, though they still must be made in the U.S.
- Produced in the United States
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
- distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
- Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
- Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period. Products aged for as little as three months are sold as bourbon. The exception is straight bourbon, which has a minimum aging requirement of two years. In addition, any straight bourbon aged less than 4 years must state the age of the spirit on the bottle.
Bourbon that meets the above requirements, has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may (but is not required to) be called straight bourbon.
- Bourbon that is labeled as straight that has been aged under four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
- Bourbon that has an age stated on its label must be labeled with the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle (not counting the age of any added neutral grain spirits in a bourbon that is labeled as blended, as neutral-grain spirits are not considered whiskey under the regulations and are not required to be aged at all).
Bourbon that is labeled blended (or as 'a blend') may contain added coloring, flavoring, and other spirits (such as un-aged neutral grain spirits); but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon.
On May 4, 1964, the United States Congress recognized bourbon whiskey as a "distinctive product of the United States". Bourbon may be produced anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. But most brands are produced in Kentucky, where bourbon production has a strong historical association. Iron-free water that has been filtered through the high concentrations of limestone, unique to the area, is often touted by bourbon distillers in Kentucky as a signature step in the bourbon-making process.
On August 2, 2007, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) officially declaring September 2007 "National Bourbon Heritage Month", marking the history of bourbon whiskey. Notably, the resolution claimed that Congress had declared bourbon to be "America's Native Spirit" in its 1964 resolution. However, the 1964 resolution had not contained such a statement; it had declared bourbon to be a distinctive product identifiable with the United States (in a similar way that Scotch is considered identifiable with Scotland). The resolution was passed again in 2008.
Bardstown, Kentucky is home to the annual Bourbon Festival held each September. It has been called the "Bourbon Capital of the World" by the Bardstown Tourism Commission and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival organizers who have registered the phrase as a trademark. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is the name of a tourism promotion intended to attract visitors to the distilleries in Kentucky, primarily including Four Roses (Lawrenceburg), Heaven Hill (Bardstown), Jim Beam (Clermont), Maker's Mark (Loretto), Town Branch (Lexington), Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg), and Woodford Reserve (Versailles).
Tennessee is home to other major bourbon producers, though most of its producers do not call their finished product bourbon; Jack Daniel's is the most well-known example. The methods for producing Tennessee whiskey fit the characteristics of bourbon production, and "Tennessee whiskey" is legally defined under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and at least one other international trade agreement, as the recognized name for a straight bourbon whiskey produced in Tennessee. It is required to meet the legal definition of bourbon under Canadian law.
The U.S. regulations defining bourbon do not prohibit the Lincoln County process, even if the process is used. On May 13, 2013, the governor of Tennessee signed House Bill 1084, requiring the Lincoln County process to be used for products produced in the state labeling themselves as "Tennessee Whiskey." A particular exception exempts Benjamin Prichard's, and included the existing requirements for bourbon.  As federal law requires statements of origin on labels to be accurate, the Tennessee law effectively gives a firm definition to Tennessee whiskey.
Bourbon also has been made in California, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, and most likely in other U.S. states as well.
The typical grain mixture for bourbon, known as the mash bill, is a minimum of 51% corn, with the remainder being wheat, rye, and/or malted barley. A mash bill that contains wheat instead of rye produces what is known as a wheated bourbon. The grain is ground and mixed with water. Usually, though not always, mash from a previous distillation is added to ensure a consistent pH across batches, and a mash produced in that manner is referred to as a sour mash. Finally, yeast is added and the mash is fermented. The fermented mash, referred to as the wash, is distilled to (typically) between 65% and 80% alcohol. Distillation was historically performed using an alembic or pot still, although in modern production, the use of a continuous still is most common.
The resulting clear spirit is placed in newly charred American oak barrels for aging, during which it gains color and flavor from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. Changes to the spirit also occur due to evaporation and chemical processes such as oxidation. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they mature. Maturity, not a particular age, is the goal. Bourbon can age too long and become woody and unbalanced.
After maturing, bourbon is withdrawn from the barrel, usually diluted with water, and bottled to at least 80 US proof (40% abv). Most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 US proof. Other common proofs are 86, 90, 94, 100, and 107, and whiskeys of up to 125 proof can be sold. Some higher-proof bottlings are marketed as "barrel proof", meaning that they have not been diluted or have been only lightly diluted after removal from the barrels. Bourbon whiskey may be sold at less than 80 proof but must be labeled as "diluted bourbon".
Bourbon is served neat, diluted with water, over ice cubes ("on the rocks"), or mixed with soda and into cocktails, including the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the whiskey sour, and the mint julep. Bourbon is also used in cooking, and was historically used for medicinal purposes.
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