What Makes a Whiskey Bourbon? (And Other Bourbon FAQs)

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Answers to the most common bourbon queries.

What makes a whiskey bourbon?
The law. While knocking back a dram of bourbon is a decidedly carefree exercise, making it is exceedingly technical and requires that the whiskey meet a rigid set of criteria. The Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon stipulate what is and what isn't bourbon. For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, its mash, the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled, must contain at least 51% corn. (The rest of the mash is usually filled out with malted barley and either rye or wheat.) The mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less, put into the barrel at 125 proof or less, and it must not contain any additives. The distillate must be aged in a new charred oak barrel. (Most often these barrels are white oak, but they can be any variety of oak.) If you distill a whiskey in your kitchen that meets all of these standards, congrats, you've made bourbon. Also, you've broken the law; the ATF is probably outside your house right now.

Things get a bit more complicated than that, though. If you want to call your bourbon "straight bourbon," you have to age it for at least two years in the barrel. If you age it for less than four years, you have to put an age statement somewhere on the bottle telling folks just how long you aged it. Thus, when you pick up a bottle of straight bourbon that doesn't explicitly say how old it is (think Jim Beam white label), you're probably getting sauce that's at least four years old, but probably not much older.

Bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, right?
Nope, but it's a common misconception. "Kentucky straight bourbon" can only be made in the Bluegrass State, but a handful of other bourbon distilleries are sprinkled around the country. Among them, Tuthilltown Spirits in New York makes its own Hudson Baby Bourbon, which is aged for just three months, and A. Smith Bowman Distillery of Virginia makes, among other products, a yummy 90-proof small batch bourbon under its Virginia Gentleman label. As long as it meets the base criteria to be bourbon, it's bourbon, no matter where it's produced.

Who invented bourbon?
That's a good question, but it's only got a vague answer. Elijah Craig is generally credited as the "inventor" of bourbon for coming up with the innovation of aging corn whiskey in a charred oak barrel in 1789. (The story is deliciously ironic because Craig was a Baptist minister by day.) But historical facts to support this story are hard to come by. There were corn whiskey distilleries in Kentucky prior to 1789, and in truth Craig was probably just one of many distillers who helped transform fiery, unaged corn moonshine into what we now know as bourbon. Craig, however, got the lasting recognition; Heaven Hill markets two nice, reasonably priced single-barrel bourbons under his name.

What's all the worry about age?
Like other whiskey, bourbon tends to improve with more time spent in the barrel. As temperatures fluctuate, the whiskey is forced into and out of the barrel's wood, which imparts vanilla-like flavors and makes the whiskey more complex. Additionally, the layer of charred wood inside the barrel helps give the whiskey its dark brown color. Of course, this process can't go on forever; evaporation means that there's less whiskey left in the aging barrel each year (the missing portion is known as the "angels' share"), so eventually the barrel will be empty. Moreover, if bourbon spends too much time in the barrel, it will often take on an unpleasant, woody taste that makes it undrinkable. The trick is to figure out exactly when a barrel has matured to perfection and not let it age any longer. There's certainly no "older is always better" rule, though; younger whiskeys can be quite enjoyable and are generally much easier on your wallet.

What's a single-barrel bourbon?
When distillers are making regular bourbon, they go to their rickhouses, the buildings where the aging whiskey is stored, and pull out a bunch of barrels. These barrels are then dumped together in giant tanks and mixed until they fit the flavor profile of the bourbon they're being bottled as. Each barrel tastes slightly different due to subtle differences in the wood, location where it was aged in the rickhouse, its age, etc. However, you can blend hundreds of them together to get a relatively consistent flavor for each batch of bourbon. This large-scale mingling process is why Jim Beam white label always tastes like Jim Beam white label.

Single-barrel bourbons, on the other hand, don't get blended at all. The master distiller picks out a particularly tasty barrel from the rickhouse, filters it, cuts it with water to get it to the correct proof, and it goes into the bottle. Because of each barrel's little idiosyncrasies, each bottle you pick up is bound to have unique flavors of its own. Bourbon enthusiasts like these single-barrel bottles partially because of these little variations and pay a premium for them. Elmer T. Lee, master distiller of Ancient Age (now Buffalo Trace), helped start this whole craze with the introduction of Blanton's in 1984. For his efforts, Buffalo Trace now markets a single-barrel bourbon named after Lee; in my opinion it's the best bourbon you can get for under $30.

Then what about small-batch bourbon?
Small-batch bourbon, on the other hand, doesn't have to live up to such a specific standard. With a single barrel, you know you're getting whiskey from a single barrel. With a small batch, you know you're getting whiskey from a batch that's small. What's small? Good question, but it's one nobody can answer. "Small batch" is really more of a nebulous marketing term than an indicator of quality. Which isn't to say that small-batch bourbons can't be quite good; many of them are among the best tipples you'll taste. Sticking the term on a label is just a clever way to make you think, "Hey, the batches are small! This must be a premium product!"

If the barrels can only be used once, what happens to them?
As noted above, bourbon has to be put into a new charred oak barrel for aging. Once the barrel's emptied, it's no good for aging bourbon. However, it can still be useful for aging other spirits. Lots of the used cooperage ends up in Scotland, where it's popular for aging scotch. Sherry casks were previously popular for aging scotch, but their strong flavors and high prices have made bourbon cooperage the most popular casks at many distilleries. Bourbon barrels have also become popular for aging certain types of microbrews, particularly stouts. Other used barrels are employed to age non-bourbon "Kentucky whiskey" like the version of Early Times sold in the American market. Or, if you like, you can just buy one to keep in your house as a 53-gallon conversation piece. (Want one? Try this site.)

Blue Point Brewing Company's New Bubble Gum Beer Has a Garbage Pail Kids Twist

Blue Point Brewing Company
Blue Point Brewing Company

Craving the taste of 1980s nostalgia? Long Island-based Blue Point Brewing Company's new bubble gum-flavored IPA, Bubble Brain, smells like Bazooka Joe but tastes more like a less-sweet fruity brew, with a tart and bitter finish. Even those who aren’t keen on IPAs might like it, as the deep rose-hued drink looks like wine and doesn’t taste as hoppy as some IPAs and pale ales.

To give the beer an added throwback vibe, Blue Point (an Anheuser-Busch InBev company) tapped Garbage Pail Kids illustrator Brent Engstrom to design the label, which features a rendering of Blue Point’s brewmaster Mike "Stoney" Stoneburg, who came up with the beer.

"It’s a small batch, bubble gum beer, driven by fruit, spices, and yeast,” Barry McLaughlin, Blue Point Brewing’s marketing director, told Forbes. “It’s all inspired by a visit to a dusty novelty store on the west side of town and finding a bit of lost nostalgia of our ‘80s youth.”

“The juicy New England and milkshake IPA styles have become extremely popular, as well as fruited, kettle sours," McLaughin said of the beer's IPA-meets-sour flavor. "As brewers, we wanted to highlight the things we love about all of these styles but also take some risks and push the drinker’s experience further in a new, sub-style of IPA."

According to the beer review site Untapped, some drinkers have described the 6.5 percent ABV Bubble Brain as “weird,” “wild,” and “tastes just like bubble gum.”

You can find the beer—and a sip of yesterday—in pastel-colored tall boy four-packs at select retail outlets in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and at Blue Point’s brewpub in Patchogue, New York.

You Can Now Enjoy a Vodka Made in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone … If You Dare

igorr1/iStock via Getty Images
igorr1/iStock via Getty Images

The HBO limited series Chernobyl has brought renewed attention to the 1986 nuclear accident that occurred in what was then the Soviet Union, which ranks among the worst man-made disasters in world history. The accidental explosion of the nuclear core irradiated a huge swath of land 1000 square miles in size and is believed to have killed thousands.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now apparently safe enough for tourists, who flock to the site to get a glimpse of what amounts to a ghost town. But would you drink a vodka made from grains and water found there?

Scientists and researchers who have worked in the zone believe some people will. They’ve founded the Chernobyl Spirit Company and are now marketing Atomik, an artisan vodka made with rye grains and water from the area. Jim Smith, an environmental scientist at England's University of Portsmouth, led the exploration of land near the Opachichi settlement, which is believed to be one of the zone's least contaminated areas.

Rye grain grown on the site demonstrated levels of radioactivity that were slightly above safe thresholds. After being distilled, the spirit was submitted to experts at Southampton University for additional testing. The distillation seemed to virtually eliminate all but the naturally occurring levels of carbon-14 found in most any spirit. The water, which comes from an aquifer six miles south of the reactor, was found to be safe. The company also says that the soil poses no health issues for workers.

Researchers say the vodka accomplishes two goals: First, it makes use of land that would otherwise be abandoned. Second, proceeds from sales of the vodka will be put back into communities near the Exclusion Zone, which have struggled to improve their economic conditions in the years since the accident.

For now, the Chernobyl Spirit Company has only produced one bottle of Atomik. The goal is to make 500 bottles this year and sell them primarily to tourists to the site. If nothing else, having some Chernobyl moonshine will make for a conversation piece.

[h/t BBC]

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