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7 Things You Should Know About Bourbon

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September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a celebration of America’s “native spirit.” I celebrate bourbon pretty much year-round, but it’s nice to have everyone else join in for a little while. If you’re not too familiar with the all-American whiskey, here’s a few things to catch you up to speed. 

1. First things first: Where’d the name come from? The usual explanation is that the hooch is named for the original Bourbon County, Kentucky, which covered a far larger area than the modern county (which has no distilleries today) and came to be called “Old Bourbon.” As the corn whiskey made by area distillers was shipped around the country, the barrels were stamped with the county’s name, and people started calling the Kentucky whiskeys bourbon to differentiate them from other regional styles. Bourbon County, in turn, was named for the royal House of Bourbon, which produced monarchs that ruled over France, Spain, Sicily, Naples, Spain and elsewhere.

There’s also an alternate explanation of the name that credits it to the whiskey’s popularity in New Orleans and curious drinkers seeking out the whiskey sold on Bourbon Street, or “that Bourbon whiskey.”

2. While bourbon was born in Kentucky and much of it is still made there today, bourbon doesn’t have to come from Bourbon County or the Bluegrass State. What makes bourbon bourbon, according to the Federal Standards of Identity of Distilled Spirits, is this: 

- It’s made in the U.S.
- It’s distilled from a grain mix that is at least 51 percent corn.
- It’s aged in new, oak barrels that have been charred.
- It’s distilled to no more than 160 proof (more on that in a minute), put into the barrel for aging at 125 proof or below and bottled at 80 proof or higher.

Bourbon that meets those standards, and has been aged for at least two years can be labeled straight bourbon.

3. The “proof” of a bourbon or other spirit is a measure of its alcoholic strength, defined in the U.S. as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. So, for example, the bourbon that goes into the barrels at 125 proof is 62.5 percent alcohol. The term comes from 18th century Britain, where sailors “proved” their rum rations were not watered down by splashing gunpowder with the spirit and then igniting it. If the powder burned, the rum was legit. 

4. Last year, Kentucky’s distilleries filled 1,007,703 barrels with delicious bourbon. They hadn’t hit the million-barrel milestone since 1973, and the busy year brought their total inventory to 4.9 millions barrels. Kentucky now has more barrels of aging whiskey than it does people (the population is 4.3 million). The 2012 tax-assessed value of all that bourbon was $1.7 billion.

5. Bourbon’s origins aren’t well documented, but popular legend credits the first batch to Baptist preacher Elijah Craig. Ever thrifty, Craig supposedly re-used an old barrel to age some home-made corn hooch and sanitized it by charring—giving it a unique color and flavor. More likely, bourbon has no one creator. Corn whiskey was distilled in Kentucky before Craig arrived from Virginia, and aging in charred barrels is also documented decades earlier as a means of dealing with “sap blisters” in the wood that could alter the whiskey’s flavor. 

6. You’ll sometimes see bottles labeled sour mash bourbon. This doesn’t describe the flavor, but means that the whiskey was made using the “sour mash process,” where the mash—the mixture of grain, malt, and water that the spirit is distilled from—contains some material from a previously fermented and used mash. This helps maintain the chemical balance of the new mash, discourages growth of foreign bacteria, and maintains consistency and quality from batch to batch. 

7. Another term you might see on a bottle is Bottled-in-Bond or Bonded. This means the bourbon was made at a single distillery, by one distiller in one distillation season, aged for at least four years in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. 

Bonded bourbons came about in the late 1800s, when some distilleries were to turning a quick buck on harsher, unaged bourbons and adding anything from fruit syrups to tobacco to improve the color and flavor. As American Whiskey Reviews explains, the distilleries that churned out these “rectified whiskies” had a leg up on more proper bourbon makers in terms of production time and costs, allowing them to control much of the whiskey market. To protect themselves, distillers lobbied Congress to lay down the above standards in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, giving their products a mark of government-guaranteed quality assurance and a fighting chance in the market. 

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Courtesy New District
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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Food
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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