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.)

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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

Winston Churchill Had a Doctor's Note That Allowed Him to Drink an 'Indefinite' Amount of Alcohol in Prohibition-Era America

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Fox Photos/Getty Images

Winston Churchill never went long without pouring himself a drink, even while traveling throughout Prohibition-era America. As producer and photographer Meredith Frost pointed out on Twitter recently, the future British prime minister and World War II leader got a doctor’s note in January 1932 which claimed he could drink an “indefinite” quantity of alcohol—federal laws be damned—to facilitate his “post-accident convalescence.” He had been struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York in December 1931, which caused him chest pain in the immediate aftermath. He also suffered bouts of depression amid the aftershock, and it reportedly took him two months to fully recover.

Unfortunately for Churchill, Prohibition didn’t end until 1933. In fact, last week (December 5) marked the 85th anniversary of the repeal. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He admitted he once went to a speakeasy—"as a social investigator," of course.

This wasn’t the only time that Churchill refused to play by the rules insofar as alcohol was concerned. Once, after being told he shouldn’t drink or smoke during a meeting with a Muslim king, he replied through an interpreter, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

However, several historical accounts have argued that Churchill's drinking was for show and that he wasn’t actually an alcoholic. “It has been said that Winston used alcohol as a prop to his persona, rather like the cigars and pet bulldog, and that he rarely got monkey-arsed, or reached the falling-down, slurred-words state,” author Robert Sellers writes in An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. “Total inebriation was something he abhorred, which says much for what must have been a steel constitution.”

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