Bourbon: The Quintessential American Spirit

For nearly a decade, Bourbon has been the hottest product in the adult beverage industry, with no signs of slowing down.  In fact, the past few years have seen some of the largest distilleries in the industry invest significant capital to increase their production capabilities.  This meteoric ascent is fueled both domestically and internationally, as Bourbon is also fiercely popular abroad.  To understand its popularity, we must first examine the history behind our native spirit.

Bourbon, with its rich history and complex flavors, stands as the quintessential American spirit. Born in the hills of Kentucky, this distinctive whiskey has woven itself into the fabric of American culture, becoming a symbol of tradition, craftsmanship, and the pioneering spirit that defines the nation. From its humble beginnings to its global recognition, bourbon has become more than just a drink; it’s a story of resilience and innovation. 

Bourbon’s origins can be traced back to the late 18th century, with the settling of Kentucky by European pioneers. While modern technology and transportation advances make it possible to create great bourbon just about anywhere today, Kentucky was the epicenter and birthplace of Bourbon because the state naturally possessed all the necessary ingredients to make a fine whiskey.  The fertile soil and iron-free, limestone-filtered water of the region proved to be ideal for growing and distilling the grains necessary for whiskey production. White Oak was plentiful, and the 4 seasons provided contrasting climates that accelerated the whiskey’s interaction within the oak barrels.  Kentucky is also home to more navigable water ways than any other state, so as popularity grew, transporting Kentucky Bourbon to other states was more easily achieved.

 

Kentucky Map
Kentucky Map

In the early days, bourbon was part of everyday life…and even thought to have medicinal qualities.  It was a currency of sorts and was used to barter for other necessary goods and services.  Many families produced bourbon, and you could find them behind the counters of general stores, with the family name branded into the barrel head.  Customers would ask for specific “Brand Names” when purchasing, and thus the term we still use today was born.  As bourbon production grew, a handful of distilleries in Kentucky became synonymous with the industry, and today, these distilleries form the famous Bourbon Trail. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced earlier this year, that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail hosted over 2.1 million visitors in 2022, shattering its previous record of 1.7 million in 2019.  This trail takes visitors on a journey through the heart of bourbon country, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the art and science of whiskey production as well as a look into its storied history.

But what is a Bourbon?  In short, Bourbon is a whiskey that also satisfies another distinct set of parameters and regulations to be classified as a Bourbon.  These regulations draw a clear distinction between Bourbon Whiskey and Whiskey in general. It is often said, “Every Bourbon is a whiskey, but not all whiskies are Bourbon.”  To legally be called bourbon, a whiskey must:

  • Be comprised of a grain mashbill of at least 51% corn
  • Aged in 100% new charred oak containers
  • Produced in the United States (not just Kentucky!)
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof, and put into barrel at no more than 125 proof
  • Bottled at 80 proof or higher

While the science behind alcohol production is fairly simple (yeast consumes sugar, and the primary by-product is alcohol), achieving the numerous flavor profiles we have all come to love in bourbon can be quite complicated.  There are numerous moving parts that dictate the flavor profile of our favorite bourbons, but here are a few that make a big difference:

  • Grain selection.  Many of the most successful distilleries have long-term contracts with farmers (as well as non-disclosure agreements), and adamantly believe the specific grains they utilize in the process are the first differentiating factor. 
  • Yeast selection. Unlike the early days where fermentation was achieved with open air fermentation utilizing native wild yeasts, today’s Master Distiller’s choose very specific yeast strains to achieve even more particular flavor profiles.  It is said that the strain of yeast used is as important to the flavor profile of a whiskey, as the varietal of grape is to a specific wine (Chardonnay vs Cabernet Sauvignon as an example).  
  • Barreling. From the individual oak trees that are harvested, to how the wood is processed and used to construct barrels, the barreling process is what transforms the clear distillate that comes off the still, into the beautiful amber bourbon you love.  Where and how the barrels are stored is also key, but every shade of color, and the many flavor nuances within bourbon, are born from its time in barrel, and the interactions that take place with the wood staves over many years.

Bourbon’s journey from the hills of Kentucky to the global stage is a testament to the enduring appeal of this quintessential American spirit. Its rich history, deeply embedded in the pioneering spirit of the nation, has contributed to bourbon’s iconic status. As enthusiasts and newcomers alike continue to explore the nuances of this beloved whiskey, bourbon remains not just a drink but a cultural phenomenon that reflects the resilience, innovation, and craftsmanship that define the American experience. Whether sipped neat, on the rocks, or in a classic cocktail, bourbon stands as a symbol of tradition and a testament to the enduring legacy of American distilling.

Andy Upchurch is an Executive Bourbon Steward and owner of Bin110 in Cornelius, NC.  One of the largest bourbon establishments in the state, Bin110 has over 450 different whiskies as well as numerous cocktail and wine and beer offerings. Stay tuned for more pieces to come about the Wine and Spirit world!

   

 

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