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We will start off by answering one of the most asked questions;
What’s The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?
If anyone ever asks you this question you can give them this simple, easy to remember answer;
Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but whiskey is not always a bourbon.
To expand a little, bourbon is a specific type of whiskey that must meet certain requirements to be called as such. There are many whiskeys, such as Jack Daniels for example, that do meet all the requirements to call themselves bourbon, however, they choose not to for one reason or another.
Continue reading for the ultimate 10-minute expert guide to bourbon.
A Brief History of Bourbon
Bourbon whiskey (American spelling, the Scottish spell it “whisky”) is distilled from a ‘mash’ which must be made of at least 51% corn grain. The mash and the distillation process are the two most important elements that make bourbon what it is today. How did we get to today’s bourbon? Well, let’s have a little history!
The name Bourbon comes from the historical association with the town Old Bourbon, which is now called Bourbon County in Kentucky. Dating back to it’s first production in the 18th Century, bourbon can be produced anywhere in the US, however, its ties remain close to the Deep South.
On May 4, 1964, US Congress officially recognized bourbon whiskey as a product of the United States, since which, it has been reported that almost 97% of all bourbon whiskey is currently produced and aged somewhere near the town of Bardstown, Kentucky.
The Bourbon Production Process
The mixture for Bourbon is known as Mash Bill, which is made up of 70% corn and the remainder including wheat, rye, and malted barley. ‘Wheated Bourbon’ is a mash that replaced the rye with wheat.
The grains are mixed with water and ground down, often a scoop of the previous Bourbon batch will be added to the mixture to ensure consistency in PH levels. This is process produces what is known as sour mash.
Yeast is then added to the mash and left to ferment. The mash is then distilled to achieve a 65% – 80% alcohol content.
Charred-oak barrels are used for the aging process. This specific method is used to color the clear liquid and flavor it via the caramelized sugars in the charred wood.
Bourbons will gain more color and flavor the longer they are left in the barrel to mature, as this is the ultimate goal. However bourbon can be left to age too long, this will result in a woody and unbalanced product.
Once sufficiently mature (the older the more expensive is the general rule of thumb!), the bourbon is removed from the oak barrel and diluted with water. It is then bottled to at least 80 US proof (40% abv). Most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 US proof.
Bourbon whiskey may be sold at less than 80% proof but must be labeled as “diluted bourbon”.
How To Drink Bourbon
Bourbon should be served straight, and either diluted with a little water or poured over ice cubes, alternatively, it can be mixed with a little soda water and added into cocktails.
Some Cocktails That Use Bourbon
- The Manhattan
- The Old Fashioned
- Mint Julep
How to Taste Bourbon
The Kentucky Chew
There are 4 main elements in which we score a bourbon.
The appearance of bourbon can be used to understand the maturity level. The color is visible proof that it is matured in charred oak barrels.
Swirl the bourbon in the glass a few times and take 3 short sniffs. You should be able to identify a variety of aromas. You can train your sense of smell just like a chef can train his or her palate.
Some of the aromas you may encounter include;
- Sweet aromatic flavors, such as vanilla, caramel, honey and butterscotch
- Fruity flavors, such as apple, pear, figs, raisins, dates, citrus and rose
- Spice flavors, black pepper, tobacco, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon
- Woody flavors, for example, oak, cedar, pine, and nuts such as almonds and pecans
- Grainy flavors, such as corn, malt, and rye
First, take a small sip, swish it around the mouth for a few seconds and then swallow. How does it taste? Does it cause a flavor eruption in the mouth or can you taste just 1 or 2 different flavors?
4. The Finish
Finally take a small sip again, this time we are looking to judge the finish of the bourbon. Does it stay with you for a long time or is it relatively short? Is it dry? Does it give you that warm fuzzy feeling or does it burn all the way down?
It is considered good practice to have a glass of water and salt-free crackers on hand to refresh your palate between sips.
Here’s Jim Bean employee and Master Distiller Fred Noe showing us how to perform the ‘Kentucky Chew’.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail
If you are planning a holiday into bourbon country then you should definitely check out the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The trail has miles upon miles of brilliant countryside across the Bluegrass State. Taking in Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Knoxville.
There are 6 distilleries to visit including;
- The Four Roses Distillery
- Heaven Hill Distillery
- Jim Bean Distillery
- Maker’s Mark Distillery
- Wild Turkey Distillery
- Woodford Reserve Distillery