Whether it’s a $14 bottle, poured into red Solo cups during classic neighborhood BBQs and NASCAR races, enjoyed among flip-flops, trucker hats and overalls, or a $150 bottle consumed over debutante balls and within the owner’s boxes at the Kentucky Derby – Bourbon is not only distinctly Southern, but distinctly American.
Born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, bourbon is now produced and bottled anywhere and everywhere in the United States, but only the United States. That’s right, China may have us by the balls in almost any other market, but we alone produce the bourbon. For a whiskey to be specifically classified as a bourbon (remember that all bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbons), it must be produced from a mixture of grain that is at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. Typically, the grain mixture, or “mash bill,” is around 70 percent corn, with the remainder consisting of rye, which gives off a more spicy quality; wheat, to mellow out the taste; or barley, which adds a creamy quality to the mixture. The longer the aging process, the less feisty and fiery the bourbon becomes; most bourbons on the market today have been aged for about three years. The tastes can vary from fruity to woody, with flavor notes from chocolate to tobacco. Once fermented and distilled, the now clear liquid is transferred to the barrels, where it picks up the color and flavor from the charred wood’s caramelized sugars. After the maturation process, the newly amber liquid is bottled at least 80 proof then shipped off for our enjoyment and (over)consumption.
Of course, bourbon wasn’t always produced in huge distillery factories by machinery. It had to start somewhere, right? The thing is, no one knows exactly where. Many have claimed ownership – after all, who wouldn’t want to imagine their great-great-great grandfather working in the backyard behind the chicken-wire, in a pair of dirty overalls on that secret formula, tasting samples scooped out of the barrels with mason jars until he hit the jackpot – but one of the more popular legends floating around is of one Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher, inventing bourbon whiskey sometime in 1789. Although a widely-known distillery adopted Craig’s name for their bourbon brand and the spirit probably did evolve during the 18th century around where Craig resided, Craig’s claim to the bourbon throne has since been discredited, but the interest and draw to discover the true origin of bourbon still stands. Today, the seven regions where the eight main Kentucky distilleries reside make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the booming tourist attraction where visitors have the opportunity to explore the distilleries. And each September, Bardstown, Kentucky, where an estimated 97 percent of today’s bourbon is distilled – the supposed “bourbon capital of the world” – hosts the annual Bourbon Festival, where 30,000 tourists flock to the five-day event.
But this influx of bourbon popularity probably wouldn’t have occurred without the revamp of the bourbon industry in the 1990’s. When the world (or at least the hip, twenty-something crowd) started guzzling vodka with renewed vigor, the whiskey industry was forced far back onto the dusty bottom shelves of liquor stores, forgotten in place of Smirnoff and Absolut. And the whole banjo, ribs, and Daisy Duke shorts that went along with bourbon wasn’t doing much for its image outside of the working-class South. But then the single barrel, special selection, and premium edition bottles hit the market and suddenly bourbon was a class act, drawing a new audience of both young professionals and affluent drinkers. With this, the bourbon industry has seen a significant growth in sales, production, and a 15 percent increase in exports. Suddenly refined and elegant, this meant a new life – and image – for bourbon. Cue the Old-fashioneds, the timeless Manhattans, the “straight up on the rocks, Jeeves.”
Now, that’s not saying that there is anything wrong with the traditional perception of the drink. No need to look down upon gingham and picnics, the nostalgia of bluegrass bands and barbeque. To prove it, there’s the “Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ” traveling festival, bringing the charm of cowboy hats and “redneck history” across the entire country. Yes, the “Ms. Bar-B-Q-Babe” contest and giant pig roast makes it way over to even us deprived northerners in Manhattan. And they offer over 45 different bourbons for your sampling pleasure. It goes without saying that they take their bourbon very seriously down South and they expect us to follow suit.
To put it in the simplest of terms: bourbon is the Captain America of liquor. Declared by a 1964 Act of Congress as America’s native spirit, bourbon is a bottle of tradition and culture and just good ol’ American fun, stemming from a red-blooded, inconspicuous Kentucky county. A little bit sophisticated, a little bit unrefined – it’s truly, 100 percent us – an American success story. Cheers, my friends, to that.