June 14th marks National Bourbon Day in the United States. Bourbon has distinctly American roots. In fact, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an Act of Congress that designated bourbon as “The Official Spirit of America.”
You may have heard the statement that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. So, what is it that makes bourbon stand out from the rest? According to the American Bourbon Association, there are several rules that the spirit must meet to be considered bourbon.
First, it must be produced in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, the spirit does not need to be made in Kentucky, although the chances are high that it was. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the state produces and ages approximately 95% of the world’s bourbon. In addition to location, there are also specifications on the ingredients required. Bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51% corn, along with a combination of other grains like rye, wheat, and malted barley.
There are also several ethanol content benchmarks the spirit must abide by. It must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof, aged in new, charred oak barrels at no higher than 125 proof, and it must be a minimum of 80 proof when bottled. While other whiskeys can add color and flavor, nothing can be added to bourbon except water, and only to lessen the proof when necessary.
Bourbon doesn’t have to be produced in Kentucky, so why has the state become so heavily associated with it? As it turns out, there are a few factors that contribute to Kentucky’s bourbon distilling prowess. For one, the state sits atop large deposits of blue limestone, which filters out hard iron from the water and imparts sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium.
Kentucky’s wide temperature swings from season to season are also helpful. The temperature changes cause the charred oak barrels, which give bourbon its amber color and distinctive taste, to alternately absorb and release the spirit. As Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell explains, “You need the hot summers and cold winters so that the wood can breathe and the whiskey can move in and out of it.”
The Kentucky soil also provides an advantage to distillers, as it’s perfect for growing corn, an essential ingredient. Kentucky has been so central to the production of bourbon that some historians believe the spirit’s name was inspired by Kentucky’s Bourbon County. While there isn’t enough solid evidence to confirm the origin of the name, there’s no doubt that Kentucky has played a huge role in the development and ongoing production of bourbon.
Bourbon is big business in the state of Kentucky. Thanks in large part to the bourbon industry, Kentucky is home to more than one-third of all the distilling jobs in the United States. And it’s not a bad line of work to be in. The average annual salary of those working in the distilling industry is $95,000. This is comparable to the average salary of those within the computer programming and mechanical engineering fields.
One demographic contributing to the growth in demand for the spirit is the millennial generation. According to a recent study by Drizly, millennials (age 23-38) accounted for 57% of bourbon sales. The study also determined that men are more prolific bourbon drinkers than women, accounting for 70.22% of sales. Drizly also revealed that the best-selling bourbon, in terms of units sold, was Bulleit.
But if you’d prefer to judge popularity in terms of price rather than units sold, you’d need to look to another brand. In July 2020, a private barrel of Michter’s limited-release 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon sold for $209,000, making it the most expensive bourbon ever to be sold at auction.
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