THE BEST BOURBON
IS MADE IN KENTUCKY
Kentucky is well-known for being the central hub of bourbon production in the United States because more than 95% of bourbon worldwide comes from the state. Though you can technically produce bourbon in other parts of the United States, you may not want to...
The unique climate of Kentucky is well-suited to produce some of the world's best bourbon. There is nothing like a Kentucky bourbon. This state provides the ideal temperatures, cyclical seasons, sweet water, and abundant corn necessary for good bourbon. Find out why Kentucky bourbon is so desirable and how this state's conditions contribute to the rich color and flavor of the world's best bourbon.
The Changing Temperatures
The best bourbon requires a range of temperatures for a properly facilitated aging process. Bourbon freshly poured into a barrel has very little of the flavor you would associate with a whiskey drink. The aging process imbues the liquor with its rich, distinctive taste. That taste comes directly from the barrel itself, so the char level and type of wood matter so much when crafting the best bourbon.
The liquid flows in and out of the wood during the aging process. In warm weather, the wood expands, allowing more bourbon to seep into the cracks and pores. Here, the bourbon picks up minuscule particulates from the wood to translate into various flavors. As the weather cools, the wood contracts, pushing the bourbon back out of those tiny openings. The bourbon flowing out of the wood is now full of flavor and color. During the winter months, the liquid has more contact with the charred insides of the barrel, further enhancing the taste.
Many essential compounds that contribute to bourbon's flavor react to changing temperatures, too. Vanillin, eugenol, whiskey lactones, and other volatile compounds evaporate at room temperature. In warm weather, furfural increases, giving the bourbon more astringency.
As the bourbon ages, it cycles through this process of heat and cold several times. Bourbon must age for at least two years, but many of the best bourbons are aged six years or more to soak up the additional flavor.
Kentucky's climate is uniquely suited to this aging process. This part of the country enjoys cold winters with average lows of around 23 degrees Fahrenheit. In summer, the daytime temperature averages a balmy 87 degrees. These fluctuations strike a balance for making the best bourbon. In climates that are too cold, the liquid doesn't move as much, so it won't absorb enough flavor. In climates that are too hot, too much of the bourbon evaporates into a lost cut known as the "angel's share." Kentucky is just the right place to produce the world's best bourbon.
The Available Microclimates
Many of the best bourbons come from Kentucky rickhouses without climate control. These warehouses typically have racks that stand nine stories high (or 27 barrels high). That means you'll find a wide range of microclimates inside that reflect the outside temperatures differently. The racks closest to the ceiling and walls experience more temperature fluctuations. That imbues the bourbon with the most flavor.
Barrels that sit higher also experience a drier climate, leading to faster evaporation. Though a more significant angel's share is lost, it also leaves the resulting bourbon with higher alcohol content. Barrels that remain closer to the floor enjoy cooler and moister conditions. Where humidity is high enough, water can penetrate directly into the barrel, lowering the alcohol content while keeping the angel's share low.
Each bourbon is unique, which means there's room for all these conditions in the aging process. Kentucky distilleries can enjoy a variety of finished flavors and proofs from one rickhouse.
The Favorable Agricultural Climate
Kentucky offers rich, fertile soil and the perfect growing seasons for one of bourbon's main ingredients: corn. All bourbon must come from a grain mixture with at least 51% corn, and the best bourbon usually has a grain mixture with as much as 60% or 70% corn. The more corn a mash contains, the sweeter its flavor.
Virginia's 1776 Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act gave 400 acres to any settler who built a cabin and planted corn in the territory that became Kentucky. Immigrants responded with relish, many of whom came from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany with personal knowledge of the whiskey distillation process.
Today, Kentucky dedicates around 1.53 million acres to corn crops, including at least some portion of every county in the state. In 2021, corn production in the state measured 274 million bushels. From this amount, between 15 million and 20 million bushels were allocated to Kentucky's spirits industry, helping this state to continue producing the best bourbon the United States has to offer.
The Quality of the Water
Kentucky even delivers water that's perfect for making bourbon. Water is, of course, one of the primary components of this liquor. When the whiskey leaves the still, it contains at least 20% water. In many cases, the best bourbon has closer to 30% water. That is because flavorful compounds like sugars, lactones, phenols, and esters bond to water rather than ethanol. Quality water is essential to a delicious bourbon.
Kentucky's water is superior because the state has deep deposits of blue limestone. That acts as a natural filter, removing impurities from the water. As the limestone filters out iron, it adds magnesium and calcium, giving Kentucky's streams a distinctly sweet taste.
Calcium and magnesium are also vital minerals for distilling. Yeast cells that have access to calcium and magnesium ions have a higher resistance to dehydration. These minerals help stabilize the yeast cell membranes. That, in turn, ensures that the yeast can withstand stress and enjoy a robust growth phase.
With all these favorable factors working together in one state, it's no wonder Kentucky is known for producing many of the best bourbons you can buy. As of 2018, Kentucky housed 68 distilleries, representing a 250% increase over the previous decade. If you seek the best bourbon worldwide, Kentucky is just the place to meet your tastes.