Most of us heartily agree that bourbon is good. Some of us aren’t all that familiar with bourbon though — what it is, when and where it came about. Uncertainty clouds our bourbon experience because we’re just not sure how it should be enjoyed. So why any of this bourbon boom matters at all could be lost on us. Bourbon is good for America, and here’s why.
America’s Native Spirit
Dating back to the 18th Century and semi-officially as of 1964, we the people declared bourbon “America’s native spirit”. What does that even mean? It means it’s not just made in America but only made in America. Bourbon is a whiskey, made of at least 51% corn, aged in new White Oak charred barrels, distilled no higher than 160 proof, barreled no higher than 125 proof, and bottled no lower than 80 proof.
Rye whiskey and fruit-flavored clear spirits were probably the first to be produced in America, but bourbon has the pedigree of a truly American spirit birthed through the pangs of American Independence. It’s seen us through all the ups and downs of our nation’s progress. George Washington made whiskey. Jefferson and Hamilton argued about it. During the Civil War, Lincoln began taxing it. Taft classified it. And now, American government thrives on its taxation. American businessmen flourished on its development as a commodity, and its distinctive character has closed many deals. American farmers, merchants, millers, metal fabricators, barrel coopers, and distillers broke their backs to produce it, export it, and provide for their families and still do. From the beginnings of America to now, it’s ripe with innovation and ingenuity.
Today, and throughout our history, we celebrate its exquisite taste and its ability to bring us together. For a few years we turned our backs on it only to see its resilience for medicinal purposes and war efforts. In 1964 the law was passed that said bourbon was “a distinctive product of the United States.” Then, the white spirit movement of the 70s and 80s tried to lay bourbon to rest. No, just no. Here we are through thick and thin, and bourbon is killing it. Joining baseball as America’s pastime and the bald eagle as America’s bird, bourbon is America’s native spirit. A story of true grit and grace for years to come.
Its Origin Story Comes from the Heart
Bourbon comes straight from the heartland of America. It all began in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky, where whiskey flows like wild horses, and bluegrass fills the land and the music. Once a year, it’s derby fever, and it’s always basketball forever. It doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky to be bourbon, but it might as well be. 95% of bourbon comes from our old Kentucky home. Why is that? Bourbon couldn’t have had a better place to start with the prevalence of corn, American White Oak, and limestone-filtered water. The Kentucky hot summers and cold winters expand and contract the barrels, so that the maximum amount of spirit comes in contact with the wood, steeping our liquid gold to perfection.
We’d be missing some key cocktails without Kentucky bourbon, like the Bourbon Old Fashioned and Derby Day’s famed Mint Julep. And what about Bourbon Balls? You can’t go wrong with chocolate and bourbon, right? More and more chefs are experimenting and delighting in bourbon’s simple yet sophisticated power to enhance their recipes. Where would our tasting experience be without first a Kentucky Chew and then a Kentucky Hug? It’s safe to say bourbon will always have a home in Kentucky, but it ventures beyond the Bluegrass State, as well.
It’s a Fascinating Journey
Bourbon is a fascinating journey to join — from grain to glass, nose to palate, and a toast with new friends and old friends alike. Many of us come from other parts of the world, or at least many of our ancestors did, having roots from the other side of the river, the tracks, or the pond. One way or another, we’re all on a journey as Americans, diverse that we are. We’re on our way to hopefully something better. At a time when our world often seems somewhat chaotic, constantly in flux, and ever challenging, bourbon reminds us to slow down and breathe. It joins us on the journey. Slow and steady wins the race.
From seed to growth to harvest, all the while, mineral-rich waters flow below. Grain is milled and cooked with the water and setback to form a mash. Fresh off the cook, you can smell that honey-sweet sour mash. Yeast is added to ferment the sugars into alcohol, producing distiller’s beer. The beer is pre-warmed to enter the still where steam carries the distillate to a condenser. We’ve got low wine now, or white dog, if you like. Maybe we’ll distill a second time to raise the proof a bit. Then, that crystal clear high wine or new make is lowered to an acceptable proof to go into the brand new 53 gallon barrel. The journey has just begun. That bourbon will sit still for ages and slosh around in the barrel, if it’s moved around. Ever so subtle, it slowly seeps into the charred wood and collects all the goodness it can. It’s years in the making, losing some of its volume over time. But, it stands the test. Later, it’s bottled and finds its way into our glass.
Some sip it slow, ice it, add branch water, mix it, craft a cocktail with it, even cook with it. Enjoy it with chocolate, a fine cigar, by a fire, on the bar, in a flask, with family and friends, ringing in the New Year, or at the Kentucky Derby. You do you. That’s the right way, and it’s the American way.
It’s True To Who We Are
Bourbon is true to who we are as Americans. We are one from many — e pluribus unum. As mentioned before, we come from all over. What unites us? We’re about equality amidst diversity. It’s the same with bourbon. We have many different bourbons from which to choose. We have straight bourbon, aged no less than 2 years, typically high in corn and equal parts barley and rye. Then, we have our rye bourbons and wheated bourbons. We have bottled-in-bond (thank goodness!), at least 4 years old, 100 proof, and distilled at one distillery in a single season. We have a diverse market in bourbon, from the large subsidiaries to our craft and boutique distilleries. All are welcome to tempt my palate anytime.
There’s some great bourbon out there to be sipped. Perhaps not all bourbon is created equal, but it’s made by us. We are one from many. It’s more about the collaboration and less about the competition. We’re all for bourbon. It takes a village. And we all would like a good life. That’s what we’re about. We’re about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And so is bourbon, America’s native spirit.
So next time you take that favorite or newly found bourbon off your shelf to share with some friends, take a moment to savor the goodness of bourbon right here in America, right now in 2019. From amber waves of grain to carefully-fashioned copper stills & steam, and to coopered & charred White Oak barrels to the glass in your hand, relish in our particularly distinctive American whiskey. It’s ours for the taking. A toast to us, we the people, and America’s native spirit, one from many.