What is Bourbon?

Brendan McGuigan

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey predominantly made in the southern United States. It is made of a blend of different grains, with the bulk of the grain alcohol coming from corn, and grains such as malted barley, rye, or wheat making up the rest.

Bourbon is made primarily from corn alcohol.
Bourbon is made primarily from corn alcohol.

Once distilled, the high-proof alcohol is aged in white oak barrels for at least two years, though often much longer, before being bottled. The bottled alcohol is usually altered so that it is 80 proof, in order to allow it to be sold in states which have a proof limit on the sale of spirits. Higher proof bourbons, often as high as 125 proof, are sometimes bottled, in which case they are usually referred to as cask strength – as they are bottled at the proof at which they come out of the cask. Cask strength bourbon tends to be available only from higher-quality manufacturers and often fetches a premium price.

Barley, which can be used to make bourbon.
Barley, which can be used to make bourbon.

The name bourbon comes from the original territory name of a large swath of the old south, named after the French royal family of the time. The whiskey coming out of this region was predominantly corn whiskey, which was a novelty to many people, and so they started referring to it as bourbon in reference to its place of origin.

Bourbon, a type of corn whiskey, is aged in oak barrels.
Bourbon, a type of corn whiskey, is aged in oak barrels.

Nearly all bourbon produced comes from the state of Kentucky, and many people hold that only corn whiskey from Kentucky can truly be referred to as bourbon – though a few exceptions seem to belie this statement. Popular Kentucky bourbon manufacturers include Jim Beam, Old Crow, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and Heaven Hill. Some bourbon manufacturers outside of Kentucky include Triple Eight of Massachusetts, Ezra Brooks of Missouri, Rebel Yell of Missouri, and Virginia Gentleman of Virginia. It should be noted that Jack Daniel’s, which many people think of as a quintessential bourbon, is in fact a Tennessee whiskey, not a bourbon at all.

A jigger is used to measure bourbon for cocktails.
A jigger is used to measure bourbon for cocktails.

Bourbon is commonly enjoyed straight or over ice, though it may also be used to make drinks such as a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. A Bourbon Old Fashioned consists of a muddled cherry, orange slice, ½ tsp of sugar, and three dashes of bitters, with a shot of bourbon and a dash of soda water added to the muddled mix and ice.

Like other whiskeys, bourbon is traditionally distilled using a still in which mash is heated until it boils, with the resulting vapors being left to cool and condense into liquid form.
Like other whiskeys, bourbon is traditionally distilled using a still in which mash is heated until it boils, with the resulting vapors being left to cool and condense into liquid form.

Since 1964, bourbon has been the official spirit of the United States, when an Act of Congress declared it to be “America’s Native Spirit.” Bourbon is one of the few drinks the United States claims solely as its own, holding fast to the term as one that indicates American production.

Bourbon is a type of whiskey common in the American South.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey common in the American South.

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Discussion Comments

BioNerd

Whiskey spread to the American south via the Scotch-Irish settlers of the Appalachians and their pioneer descendants. Bourbon is an unique evolution of the Celtic culture that was brought from Northern Ireland, as is much of country music. Despite the fact that the Scotch-Irish and the Irish Catholics share a common heritage, they would never admit that, and they have historically been fierce enemies, even in the new world.

dbuckley212

@FitzMaurice

Actually, the Poe Toaster usually brings Cognac, which is French. Bourbon is not French, despite the name.

FitzMaurice

Edgar Allan Poe's gravesite has a yearly visitor called the "Poe Toaster," who traditionally brings Bourbon to the grave to honor the late great poet. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Poe ever actually enjoyed Bourbon in his lifetime. He probably tried it, but it is unlikely that he viewed this French liquor with much favor, in spite of the fact that he was a heavy drinker.

anon3699

While it is true that Ezra Brooks and Rebel Yell are owned by a Missouri company, they are distilled, aged, and bottled in Kentucky.

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