If you ask 10 whisk(e)y drinkers to define bourbon, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. That seems to be due to a variety of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings surrounding one of America’s favorite whiskies.
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or the TTB), the branch of the U.S. Department of the Treasury that regulates and oversees the distillation, sale, and taxation of distilled spirits, Bourbon Whisky is:
Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.
As we prepare for the release of our first Bourbon Whisky on Tuesday, November 8, we thought it might be helpful to clear up some of these misconceptions with a series of four blog posts, pulling apart the definition piece by piece, and offering explanations for the where, what, how, and why of Bourbon.
Today, we start with the “where”: “Whisky produced in the U.S….”
One of the most common myths about bourbon is that it has to be made in the state of Kentucky. There are many reasons why people may have heard or think this, not least of which is the fact that the term “bourbon” became associated with whisky in Kentucky as early as the 1820’s and consistently used to describe whisky made and distributed from Kentucky by the 1870’s. There is some debate on the inspiration of the term, though. Some suggesting it had to do with the county, Bourbon County, in Kentucky where bourbon whisky was allegedly first made (this is heavily disputed, and it seems to us, based on research, that it probably was NOT first made in Bourbon County). Others argue that the term “bourbon” was more likely inspired by Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Whisky was one of the largest exports (and still is) from the State of Kentucky, and many barrels were marked “Bourbon Street” and sent down the Ohio River to Louisiana. Over time, people began asking for it in New Orleans as simply “Bourbon”.
The other reason many folks assume Bourbon must come from Kentucky is the sheer volume that comes from the State. As of 2014, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association reported over 5.5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky – outnumbering the people in the state by over 1 million! And, in terms of global production, Kentucky makes 85% of the world’s bourbon.
Some distilled spirits, by legal definition and international treaties, have geographically protected names. Scotch must be made in Scotland; Tequila must come from certain regions of Mexico; Irish Whisky has to be manufactured in Ireland. Bourbon doesn’t have such protection.
The legal definition of Bourbon Whisky from the TTB mandates that it must be made in the United States – anywhere in the United States.
As the number of distilleries in the U.S. rises, so too does the number of bourbons being produced outside the State of Kentucky.
At Long Road, we’re proud to offer the first Bourbon ever milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled 100% in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We’re excited to add our whisky to the rich heritage of distilleries and distillers that have come before us. And, we can’t wait for you to taste what we’ve been working on! Take the Long Road!
Stay tuned for Parts 2-4 of “What is Bourbon?” coming over the next several days!