By Fred Minnick
Bourbon is America’s most alluring spirit, glimmering with russet hues and offering a vanilla and caramel bouquet of aromas. It’s also as American as baseball and apple pie.
Fifty years ago congress declared bourbon to be distinctive to the United States, effectively giving it geographic labeling protection from other countries such as Mexico that had a distillery selling “Bourbon” at discounted prices until the early 1960’s. Nowadays, the U.S. federal law defines bourbon as whiskey produced in the USA not exceeding 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.
But bourbon is so much more than a legal definition. With 95 percent of it made in Kentucky, its roots are buried in the Bluegrass State, but many smaller distillers, such as Finger Lakes Distillery in New York and Balcones in Waco, Texas are also making delicious bourbon.
No matter where it’s made, bourbon is influenced by five sources of flavor, grain, water, fermentation methods, distillation, and maturation. The two most identifiable flavor contributors are grains and maturation.
Much as corn syrup sweetens countless candy bars, corn gives bourbon its caramel and vanilla base. In what’s called the mash bill, corn is mixed with the common secondary grains wheat and rye.
Bourbons with wheat as the secondary grain are referred to as wheated bourbons, such as Makers Mark. Just as wheat bread yields a different flavor profile than rye bread, wheated bourbons taste slightly sweeter and less spicy than bourbons using heavy doses of rye.
Higher rye bourbons include Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve, and Bulleit. These bourbons typically warm the palate with fun notes of cinnamon and baking spices.
When hosting a private tasting class, I aske the crowd to pick a flavor: caramel or cinnamon. If they prefer caramel, I start them with wheated bourbon, usually Maker’s Mark, because wheated bourbons’ caramel notes tend to be stronger. For cinnamon lovers, I recommended the higher-rye bourbons, especially Bulleit and Woodford Reserve, because in addition to the caramel and vanilla, the cinnamon gracefully expresses itself.
After bourbon makers put the clear distillate (it looks like vodka) into a new charred oak barrel, the wood interacts with the liquid, chemically changing its color and filtering our unwanted flavors. The wood also gives bourbon the majority of its flavor, including smoke, coconut, coffee, and mocha notes.
As the bourbon sits in the barrel, about 3 to 5 percent is lost every year to evaporation, a process referred to as the “angels’ share.” If the barrel has a leak, more than 15 percent a year could be lost until the leak is filled.
In the best-case scenario, the average barrel loses about half of its whiskey before bottling. In the worst-case scenario, the barrel completely leaks all of the precious whisky. Thank goodness leaky barrels are rare, but bourbon makers must take the angels’ share into account when forecasting demand.
The Bourbon you buy today was conceived several years ago. Most bourbons don’t carry age statements on the label, but older doesn’t always mean better. Makers Mark averages six years old, and many small batch bourbons are aged seven to twelve years.
As for which one you’ll like, well, you’ll have to taste to find out. I recommend tasting them all. Responsibly, of course
Fred Minnick is the “bourbon authority” for Kentucky Derby Museum and author of Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey (Potomac Books, 2013; fredminnick.com).