Bourbon Myths: Debunked
Sit, sip and savor as I take you through the basics of bourbon, Americas spirit, defined.
Despite the dramatic increase in the popularity of bourbon in recent years, I still find there’s a lot of confusion among some drinkers about exactly what constitutes this venerable American spirit. Oftentimes, a guest will tell me they “like whiskey, but not bourbon,” request a bourbon that’s “not too peaty,” or eschew the brown stuff altogether because they’re under the impression that it’s “too boozy,” and so on.
In all fairness, the subject of whiskey is pretty vast and can be somewhat confusing. Generally speaking, whiskey is just a combination of water, grain and yeast that’s fermented, then distilled. But this simple equation yields a mind-boggling array of styles and expressions, all of which come under the whiskey aegis. Since whiskey is one of the focuses of this issue, I thought I’d lay out some bourbon basics.
At first glance, these bourbon rules (see sidebar) might seem a little bit restrictive, but they’re actually pretty broad standards that allow distillers a lot of room for creativity. For example, even though two years of aging is required, bourbons are oftentimes set aside for much longer than that. The char—the burnt surface inside of the barrel—might be anywhere from lightly toasty to something resembling scaly alligator hide, which greatly affects the resulting spirit. The proofs can vary widely as well. Sure, 80 proof is the minimum, but it can go upward of 120+ for varieties straight out of the barrel. And although corn is required to be the predominant grain, others can be added—like wheat or rye—to produce a panoply of different flavors.
Since we’re talking about what bourbon is, there are a couple of myths worth dispelling. Despite its name, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, or in Kentucky at all for that matter—although the Bluegrass State remains the cradle of mass production for the spirit. There has been a real explosion of distilleries across the country—both craft and otherwise—in recent years, and fine bourbons are being produced from coast to coast. And for those who might have a hankering to try bourbon but have a fear of the “dark,” remember that bourbon, and whiskeys in general, are not necessarily “boozier” than other spirits. Just because it’s brown doesn’t mean it has more alcohol, though certainly there are plenty of high-octane bourbons out there. That vodka tonic may have just as much of a kick as an old fashioned.
For those who want to get deeper into the subject, try taking a trip down the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, and visit some of the distilleries along the route. Check out kybourbontrail.com and kentuckytourism.com to plan your adventure. If a road trip isn’t in your future, there are a few good references for further bourbon study at home: “The World Atlas of Whisky” by Dave Broom; “Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide” by Michael Jackson; and “The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskies” by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan.
Happy reading, and—as always—savor your sips.
Matt Sorrell has been a Dining and Spirits Contributing Editor for ALIVE for the past four years (and an ALIVE writer for seven). He has worked at several bars around town and currently can be found behind the bar at Planter’s House in Lafayette Square. A graduate of the BarSmarts Advanced course, he recently attended the BAR five-day course in NYC, where he achieved a BAR certified rating. He and his wife, Beth, also own Cocktails Are Go!, which provides libation education and bartender services.
What Matt's Drinking Now:
I always try to seek out bonded whiskeys, like Old Grand-Dad BIB. They’re at least four years old, 100 proof and generally a great bargain.
Illustration by Noah Macmillan