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.)

10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine

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iStock/MarkSwallow

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of wine. Here, Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma, spills some of the best. Here are a few things you might not know about wine.

1. Digital eyes are everywhere in today's vineyards.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like army bases—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. 

2. Modern vineyards also bury a lot of cow skulls. 

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. Ferocious foliage is a vintner's secret weapon.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. Roses in a vineyard are the wine country equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. 

Vintners plant roses among their vines because the flowers get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. Birds of prey help protect the grapes.

Glasses of red wine and charcuterie
iStock/Natalia Van Doninck

Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. Small bugs become big problems in wine tasting rooms.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bug-eating predators are fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. Wine needs to be filtered. 

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. (Unwanted compounds in the wine bind with the fining agents so they can be filtered and removed.) Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. Wine is ever so slightly radioactive (that's a good thing).

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. MRIs can determine the fine from the funk.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. Wines can be aged instantly.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?

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Whether you plan to enjoy the race from Churchill Downs or don an elaborate hat in the comfort of your own home, if you're watching the Kentucky Derby, you may find yourself sipping on a refreshing mint julep this weekend. But, why?

The drink—a cocktail traditionally composed of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint—has been a Kentucky favorite since long before Churchill Downs came into play. In fact, in 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs (a change from the stuffed animals they offer today). And before that, a “julep” was considered medicinal, “prescribed” for stomach problems and sore throats.

Though mint juleps have likely been enjoyed at the Kentucky Derby since the beginning—legend has it that founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875—the cocktail wasn’t declared the “official” Derby drink until 1938.

It was just a few years ago that the Derby switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For almost two decades, the 120,000 mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times. Based on the aging process, Early Times isn’t considered bourbon (just “Kentucky whisky”) in the U.S. In 2015, they switched to Old Forester, which is also owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation.

Even with the switch to “real” bourbon, what most revelers actually get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep—unless you’re willing to pony up $1000. For nearly 15 years, Brown-Forman has served a special version of the drink made with Woodford Reserve small batch bourbon. It’ll set you back a grand, but hey, you get to keep the pewter cup—and proceeds benefit the John Asher Memorial Scholarship Fund at Western Kentucky University.

“John Asher was the voice of Churchill Downs for 30 some odd years and he was so passionate about horse racing, about the Derby, and he was quite the historian," Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris told CNBC Make It. "He unexpectedly passed away last summer and we created this foundation in his name to continue a new generation of journalism students at his alma mater."

If you're looking to drop even more cash, there's also a $2500 version of the drink which comes in a gold cup with a silver sipping straw.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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