Bartenders Guide: Bourbon

Bulleit Bourbon

I was living in Louisiana during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It so happened at the time that my lifelong friend and adopted brother, Chef Matthew Wetzler, was launching a new venture in Chicago and needed my immediate assistance. Airplanes were out, so I packed a few odds and ends along with a bottle of Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon and set out in my ragtop...arguably not the most hurricane-proof vehicle.

Allow me to digress a bit and inform you that in spite of the fact that I like rare steaks, bad science fiction and good bourbon, I was born with a tragically underdeveloped Male Sense of Direction. Some guys can just glance at the sun or the stars and head confidently off West, if that is their goal. I am not one of them. I get lost going to the local Stop-N-Rob down the street, if even the most minute random thought enters my head along the way.

So...of course, I get lost. I am not aware of this, but the fact that leaves are falling around me like confetti, followed by the trees themselves, should probably have been a strong clue that I was not headed North, as I intended. I'm getting more than a little scared, but there's no going back, so I dig out the Evan, promise to buy Matt a new bottle and take a few strong pulls. Thus refreshed, I navigate the kidding, I was in a Miata...back onto what appears to be the road, call Matthew for directions and gradually make my way back onto the correct highway.

Many hours later, after I had arrived and he and I were retracing my route, we discovered that I had actually been heading south for at least 100 miles, directly into the storm. Matthew chastised me, saying, "I cannot believe that anyone would be drinking bourbon while driving a convertible into a hurricane."

My only reply was, "I can't believe anyone wouldn't?"

Bourbon is an American whiskey, a type of distilled spirit, made primarily from corn and named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, which interestingly is a dry county. (You can make it, but not sell it there.)

It used to be a legal requirement that Bourbon came from Bourbon County. This is no longer the case. Bourbon must meet several strict standards in order to bear the name, though. They currently are:

Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.

Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof. (80% alcohol by volume).

Bourbon must be 100% natural (nothing other than water added to the mixture).

Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. ("New" meaning they have never been used for any other spirit. Distillers of Scotch, Irish Whiskey and other spirits often buy used American Bourbon barrels to impart some of their residual flavor.)

Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof. (62.5% alcohol by volume).

Bourbon which meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years, may be called "Straight Bourbon". This is an option, not a requirement, but most distillers of Straight Bourbon will proudly place it on the label.

Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labelled with the duration of its aging.

Almost all bourbons made today qualify as Straight Bourbons whether they are so labeled or not, with the exception of very bottom-tier brands or ready-mixed bourbon cocktail products. Even these must be aged a minimum of two years to carry the name "Bourbon" on the label.

Bourbons range from light and dry to dark and sweet, but common flavors present will include vanilla, maple, caramel, some smokiness, pepper or cinnamon notes and occasionally some fruity tones.

Like all whiskeys, Bourbon can be made from several distillation methods and blends of grain, though the bulk must still be corn. I encourage you to click on the distillation methods link for information on such terms as Single Barrel, Blended, Sour Mash, etc.