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.)

Ohio Man Honors 17th-Century Monks by Consuming Only Beer During Lent

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iStock.com/OkorokovaNatalya

There are no strict rules about what Catholics can and can't give up for the Lent: Observers of the holy season can choose to abstain from everything from fried foods to social media. This year, one Ohio man is making the extreme pledge to give up food entirely, consuming only beer during Lent, Cincinnati news station WKRC reports.

Del Hall isn't just using Lent as an excuse to day-drink for 46 days straight. His decision to limit his diet to beer is an homage to the 17th-century Bavarian monks who made a similar sacrifice during Lent. In that case, they were limited to bock beer, a robust German beer they dubbed "liquid bread." As an employee at the Fifty West Brewing Company in Cincinnati, Hall will have access to beers of all varieties.

Four days into the challenge, Hall told WKRC, "I'm very nervous about it." But he's no stranger to pushing his body to the limit, and compares the challenge to his previous experiences training in the Army and running marathons.

Hall hopes to make it to April 21 subsisting on the all-liquid diet, but he realizes that may not be possible. He'll be monitoring his body and seeing a physician regularly to make sure his fast doesn't pose a threat to his health.

[h/t WKRC]

Sláinte! 15 Facts About Guinness Beer

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iStock.com/Nagalski

Under the guidance of Arthur Guinness and his heirs, Guinness has been brewing pints of its famous stout in Dublin since the mid 18th century. Pour yourself a glass of the black stuff (which actually isn't black at all) and read on for more facts about the legendary brewery.

1. The company originally leased its Dublin brewery for 9000 years.

Arthur Guinness began his beer business in 1759 by renting an unused, four-acre brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin for the next 9000 years. He paid an initial £100 and locked in annual rent at £45. However, the original lease was voided when the company bought the property and the brewing operations expanded to 50 acres.

2. The lease included free access to a water supply.

And the owner was very protective of that privilege. In fact, the one time local authorities tried to make Arthur Guinness pay for his water, he is said to have grabbed a pick-axe from one of the sheriff’s men [PDF] and swore at them until they left.

3. There was once an ale as well.

Guinness started his beer company by brewing two beers: a porter and an ale. However, the Dublin Ale was dropped from production in 1799 so brewers could focus producing more on the increasingly popular stout.

4. It takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint of Guinness.

A bartender pours several pints of Guinness
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There are six official steps [PDF] to pouring a pint of Guinness, including waiting nearly two minutes for the beer to settle between the first and second pour.

5. The beer's official color is ruby red.

It’s easier to see the slight tint that comes from the roasted barley if you hold the pint up to the light.

6. Guinness is brewed in 49 countries around the world.

In addition to Ireland, Guinness also owns breweries in Malaysia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. The beer is brewed in a total of 49 countries and served in more than 150. All of the ingredients are sourced locally, except for one: the Guinness extract, a secret mixture that is added to a Guinness brewed anywhere in the world.

7. Ireland isn't the biggest consumer of Guinness.

The country ranks third on the list of places where residents tip back the most Guinness annually, after Britain and Nigeria. Every day, 10 million glasses of Guinness are consumed around the world.

8. The bubbles in a pint of Guinness sink because of the shape of the glass.


When a Guinness is poured, the beer flows downward along the side of the glass, dragging bubbles along with it which then move upward through the middle and form the creamy head. This circulatory pattern is created by the fact that pint glasses are wider at the top than at the bottom giving the bubbles more space to rise from the middle as opposed to from the side.

9. Guinness was one of the first companies to offer employee benefits.

Employees who punched the clock at the company in 1928, just one year before the Great Depression, were entitled to on-site medical and dental care—and two free pints after every shift. Guinness also consistently paid its employees 20 percent more than other brewers and gave them full pensions.

10. The Guinness Harp was one of the first trademarks in the U.K.

The harp, along with Arthur Guinness’s signature, made its first appearance on a Guinness beer label in 1862 and was officially registered in the trademark office in 1876. The harp is a nod to the beer’s Irish roots. The same instrument appears on Ireland’s coat of arms.

11. The patent office noticed the similarities between the two harps.

The Storehouse at Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland
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The government ran into issues when trying to register the harp as a state symbol under international trademark law because the symbol and the Guinness label were so similar. Eventually, the state and the brewery were able to reach a compromise: the harp on a bottle of Guinness would always face right, while in official use, the harp would always be left-facing.

12. Guinness promised every British soldier a pint of beer on Christmas Day during WWII.

Guinness made the statement before realizing that much of the company's work force was also serving abroad at the time. When the company discovered they needed more workers in order to brew enough beer, retirees showed up at the plant to help out. With the help from veterans and workers from other brewing companies, Guinness was able to stay true to its word.

13. The first Guinness Book of World Records was published to help settle pub arguments.

After a particularly unfruitful hunting trip, Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness, mentioned that the bird he and friends had been hunting—the golden plover—must be the fastest bird in the world. When Beaver was unable to locate a reference book that could back his claim, he decided to create one. He stamped the Guinness name on the cover and handed the book out for free to pubs to help customers settle the debates and bets that happen so frequently after a pint.

14. It has been consumed underwater.

As part of the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Arthur Guinness signing the lease on the St. James’s Gate brewery, the company held a contest that promised the winners would get to drink a Guinness like never before. A submarine bar was commissioned in 2009 and three years later, the winners went under the Baltic Sea in Stockholm to enjoy their pints.

15. Guinness created its own superhero in Africa.

As part of an advertising campaign, Guinness created a full-length action movie called Critical Assignment that was shown in cinemas across Africa. The story follows the strong journalist Michael Power as he tries to stop a corrupt politician from buying weapons with stolen money. Power gets all his strength from drinking—you guessed it—Guinness.

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