By Joy Neighbors
September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, making this the perfect time to learn more about bourbon and how it’s made.
Bourbon was first designated as America’s “Native Spirit” in 1964 in an Act of Congress with the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The goal was to promote the cultural background and rich heritage of this indigenous American spirit. But to produce that smooth, rich, flavorful drink, there are five rules that must be followed for a whiskey to classify as bourbon.
- It must be made in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, Kentucky is not the only state that can craft bourbon. Great bourbons are also crafted in Indiana, Illinois, and 45 other states. The Commonwealth of Kentucky does make the majority of bourbon — 95 percent of all bourbon crafted in the world.
- Bourbon is made up of at least 51 percent corn. Other grains like rye, which provides the bold spicy profile, wheat adds sweetness, and the malted barley that produces an enzyme to break down the other grains into fermentable sugars for fermentation can also be used, but corn must be the predominate grain.
- No coloring or flavors can be added to bourbon. In fact, only water or more bourbon can be used when adjusting the proof of the “white dog” as it goes into the barrel.
- Bourbon must be aged in a new charred oak “container,” not necessarily a barrel. Legally, you could use an oak bucket, not the best of ideas, but it does fit the legal requirements. The wood for the barrel is important because it provides 50 percent of the flavor and 100 percent of color to the finished product. American white oak is the industry standard for barrels, but smaller craft distilleries may experiment with red oak or French oak for different colors and flavors. Barrels do not have to be 53 gallon although that is what most distilleries use. Craft distilleries may experiment with smaller barrels in an attempt to speed up the aging process.
- Bourbon must come off the still no higher than 160 proof, go into the barrel no higher than 125 proof (This is where adding water or more bourbon can assist in raising or lowering that proof to an acceptable level.), and into the bottle no lower than 80 proof.
The still is extremely important in the bourbon-making process and can take many forms from a column to a goose neck to a pot with each shape providing something different to the distilling process. Bourbon normally undergoes two distillations. The first is where steam is added to the “distiller’s beer” to drop the solids (remaining grains and silage) to the bottom of the still. The water and alcohol will vaporize then condensed into a spirit safe for the first distillation. This comes in about 120 proof and is called low wine.
For the second distillation, the water and alcohol are placed in a copper doubler/thumper and vaporized to remove as much water as possible before being condensed into a second spirit safe. This is now referred to as the high wine, or “white dog” due to its clear color and very “sharp bite.”
When the white dog hits the barrel, it is immediately classified as bourbon. Moonshine is another term which may be used for the high wine. The name came about during Prohibition when locals made whiskey by the “light of the moon” to go undetected by Revenue agents. Moonshine is used to describe a high-proof, unaged whiskey made illegally.
If a bottle of bourbon bears an aging statement, check and make sure it has aged for several years. Bourbon must be aged four years or more before it is not required to have an aging statement. Bourbons under four years must be marked so that consumers do not expect the usual rich and flavorful complexities.
Bottled in Bond is a phrase that can be confusing. While it is no longer required on a label, some bourbons are marked “Bottled in Bond” for nostalgic reasons. The Bottled in Bond Act was implemented in 1897 to ensure more quality control over the bourbon-making process, resulting in a better quality product. It simply means that the bourbon must be at least four years old, at least 100 proof, aged at the same distillery and overseen by the same distiller for at least one year, ensuring its quality.
Autumn is the perfect time to get in the spirit of National Bourbon Heritage Month and raise a glass of your favorite brand of America’s Native Spirit to celebrate.