Why does bourbon get a whole month? The US Senate declared September “National Bourbon Heritage Month” back in 2007. The bill passed with unanimous consent, and calls for consumers who enjoy bourbon to celebrate the family heritage, tradition and longstanding legacy that the bourbon industry contributes to America and the world. Whether you enjoy this classic American spirit on the rocks, neat, or in your favorite cocktail, let us know how you’re celebrating.
Bourbon is America’s only native spirit, as declared by Congress in 1964. It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels and stored at no more than 125 proof. Additionally, bourbon must be bottled at 80 proof or higher, and can contain no additives besides water. There are few stories explaining how bourbon got its name – the most common is that the spirit was named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, where plenty of it was made, barreled and sent down to New Orleans. Others believe the name came from Bourbon Street itself, after so much was consumed there.
In 1778, Virigina offered settlers a homestead of 400 acres if they built a home. Many followed through and planted acres of corn. With this surplus of corn, settlers made whiskey, and soon bourbon. 95% of the world’s bourbon is still made in Kentucky alone. The state is ideal with their seasonal weather changes, fertile soil and iron free water. Kentucky also has a surplus of oak trees to make new oak barrels for aging.
Women in Bourbon
It might seem like the bourbon industry is a boys club but many women have been influential in the creation of bourbon. With the surplus of corn and the lack of suitable drinking water, women would distill corn for drinkable liquids in their homes. Marjorie “Margie” Samuels, the wife of Maker’s Mark distiller T. William Samuels, gave the whisky its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look. During prohibition, female bootleggers outsold men five to one. Additionally, it was a group of women who partnered with the KDA to start the Bourbon Trail experience in 1999.
How to Judge a Bourbon
Pay attention to appearance, aroma, taste, finish and viscosity. Food memory is important when tasting bourbon, and using your experiences to compare aromas and flavors in your bourbon. Is it full of sweet flavors like vanilla, caramel, honey or butterscotch? Or is it more fruit forward with hints of apple, pear, citrus or fig? Do you get any spice notes? Maybe black pepper, white pepper, clove, nutmeg or cinnamon? Can you smell the intensity of the barrel or other grains mixed with the corn?
Shopping for Bourbon
You wouldn’t shop for new clothes without knowing your size or the occasion where you will wear them. Shopping for bourbon is similar. It’s important to know what flavors you like, how much you want to spend, and how you plan on enjoying it. Your bottle of bourbon can go a long way if it’s higher proof and you plan on mixing it with ice or water. Or you may want a more flavorful bourbon for your favorite cocktail. Ask the spirits consultant at your favorite store questions, and be selective. And of course, buy to drink, not to hoard. It’ll taste better.
Master Distiller of Wild Turkey, Jimmy Russel said, “This is the best bourbon you’ll ever drink.” Someone asked, “What if someone adds coca cola?” Jimmy replied with, “Then it’s the best bourbon and coke you’ll ever drink.” Don’t be afraid to mix a cocktail. Sometimes that is the best way to taste flavors you might miss when tasting a bourbon on its own. A few of our favorites include the Manhattan Love Story, Minneapolis Hustler and the Old Fashioned.
More Bourbon Facts
- There are more barrels in Kentucky (5.2 million) than people (4.3 million) and horses (242,000) combined.
- United States spirits exports topped $1.5 billion in 2012. Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey made up more than $700 million of that amount, making it the largest export category among all US distilled spirits.
- Are you an I Dream of Jeannie fan? The “lamp” prop that Jeannie emerges from in each episode is a Jim Beam decanter.
- Buffalo Trace has the world’s smallest barrel warehouse, consisting of just one barrel.
- Old Forester Master Distiller George Garvin Brown was the first to bottle bourbon. He named the product after his doctor, Dr. Forrester. When Dr. Forrester retired, his endorsement was no longer valid, so Old Forester is now spelled with only one ‘r.’
- 1792 Ridgemont is named after the year Kentucky became a state and one of the Barton stills, Ridgemont.
- Georg and Maximilian Riedel, of the glass manufacturer of the same name, refuse to create a bourbon glass. After they visited Kentucky, no one could give them a straight answer on what they were looking for in their drinking glass. Most said they’d prefer to drink the spirit out of whatever they felt like.
For more, check out the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.