Kentucky. Straight. Bourbon.
Three words that when said together are music to the ears of whiskey devotees.
Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky—a number of fine bourbons are made elsewhere in the United States—but just like sparkling wine made in the Champagne region has a special allure, bourbon from Kentucky holds a special place on the back bar. Champagne is more than an allure; it has to be made in Champagne or it is not Champagne.
If you believe even part of the legend, bourbon got its name and flavor by pure happenstance. Farmers in what is now Kentucky needed a cheap and convenient way to turn grain into a cash crop. It just so happened that early settlers in the region knew a thing or two about converting grain into alcohol. Wood barrels marked Bourbon County were filled with white lightning and loaded on packet boats for the journey down the Ohio River and then the Mississippi. By the time they arrived at the final destination, magic had happened.
At some point in the late 1700s or early 1800s, charred oak barrels came into use. One story credits a frugal Baptist minister and distillery operator, Elijah Craig, with the idea. It’s said a fire charred some barrels at his distillery, but he decided to use them. While others suggest some traders in the area, originally from France, brought with them the aging techniques used for cognac and decided this would appeal to customers in Memphis and New Orleans. However the idea came about, the result was a whiskey that is now an iconic American drink.
At some point, legends and stories are eclipsed by history and fact. In 1964, Congress officially recognized bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States.” Bourbon must be made in the United States using a mash bill that is at least 51 percent corn. It cannot be distilled over 160 proof and aged at no higher than 125 proof. It has to be at least 80 proof when it is bottled. To be “straight” bourbon whiskey, it must be aged at least two years. Only new oak barrels charred by the cooperage can be used for aging. After this first use, the barrels are shipped off to make other whiskeys in places such as Canada or Scotland, or sent to be used to age other spirits. Some end up at breweries for making barrel-aged beer.