7 Things You Need to Know About Bourbon

From the intricacies of the "bourbon law" to the rules of ageing, here are 7 things you didn't know about bourbon

Understanding what bourbon is can be as complicated and colourful as the spirit itself, but a little intel can amplify the enjoyment of this all-American whiskey

At The Belmont Bar on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, rows of glasses filled with golden liquid are set up on the tables for the EAT! Vancouver Evening of Bourbon and BBQ. And Darryl Lamb, brand manager at Legacy Liquor Store is about give us the bourbon lowdown during our four-course feast. Here are seven things to know about the barrel-aged spirit


Learn the lexicon

Four little words: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. If these words don’t appear on the bottle, you still might be drinking whiskey, but it ain’t bourbon, according to the 1964 “bourbon law.” The 9-year-old Knob Creek bourbon we sample first clearly has these words wrapped around the bottle. They indicate that the spirit is produced according to the standards of pre-Prohibition bourbon, meaning no other blends of whiskey or colours and flavours can be added, among a bunch of other rules that must be followed. When matching it with food, guidelines help too. “Match rich with rich,” says, Darryl Lamb, brand manager at Legacy Liquor Store, describing how the Knob Creek bourbon goes well with the fatty-salty pork rillettes we start with.

All Bourbon Comes From Kentucky – Or Does It?

Making a batch of bourbon – in California?

There are legal rules around what American whiskey can be called bourbon, and if you think it has to be distilled in the state of Kentucky you’re wrong. Yes, Kentucky is the de facto birthplace of bourbon in the U.S., named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. But interestingly, no bourbon has been produced Bourbon since before Prohibition.

To earn its illustrious name, bourbon must be produced in the U.S. (similar to how Scotch must be produced in Scotland and tequila in specific states in Mexico). That means bourbon can be distilled in California – and it is. Sonoma County Distilling Co. pays homage to its corn-producing forefathers with its West of Kentucky Bourbon. You’ll also find bourbon in Tennessee, New York, Vermont, and other states.

There’s Cereal in my Spirit?

Any guesses about what grain is cheap and plentiful in the American south? Corn. It’s the one grain you’ll find in all bourbon, which is no accident. It’s directly related to boosting the economic circumstances of farmers in the American south way back when (and probably still now). Bourbon can be made from a combination of so-called “cereal grains,” such as barley, rye, wheat and corn, but in order to qualify as bourbon, at least 51 per cent of the grain used must be corn. No corn? It still might be American whiskey (think rye whiskey, for instance), but it’s definitely not bourbon.

Our second sample of bourbon is Basil Hayden’s®, which has a spicy kick compared to the rich and smooth Knob Creek. That’s because in addition to corn and barley, it includes rye. Lamb describes it as a “good starter bourbon.” The time our pairing includes deep-fried ribs with a Basil Hayden’s® BBQ glaze and sweet corn succotash. The south is tasting closer with these rustic and hearty dishes.

What Each Grain Brings to the “Bill”

Try sipping bourbon neat and you’ll notice the nuances that come from the various grains, along with the aging time. Consider the third bourbon we sampled: Old Grand-Dad. It’s named for the distiller’s grand-dad – Basil Hayden – who apparently had a fiery personality. So his namesake bourbon is made with a hefty dose of rye (about 30 per cent), which gives this spirit a more assertive, peppery flavour. It’s a solid match with the  big slabs of eight-hour smoked beef brisket, which is accompanied by Old Grand-Dad–infused honey glazed cornbread.

This combination of grains, or recipe, that goes into each bourbon is called a mash bill. Here’s how the fourth bourbon we sampled, Maker’s Mark, breaks its down: 70 per cent corn, 16 per cent wheat, and 14 per cent barley. Corn lends bourbon its sweetness, winter wheat offers smoothness, and barley brings a “citrusy-grassy flavour,” says Lamb.

When Youth and Age are Good and Bad

Remember those four words: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey? There’s an age implied in that distinction. It’s a minimum of two years of aging — in oak. And not just any old oak barrels. On the contrary, Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey must be aged for a minimum of two years in brand-new barrels made from American white oak, which have been charred*.

This is another example of how parts of the bourbon law were dreamt up to create work for people – this time, coopers. After the bourbon-aging is complete, the barrels are retired and commonly put to work for aging other spirits, including Scotch, so distillers need a continuous supply of brand-new barrels. When you see what’s called an “age statement” on the bottle, like the 9-year-old Knob Creek we sipped, that indicates the age of the youngest bourbon in the bottle, so it might include bourbon from older batches.

*Charring brand-new white oak barrels beforehand gives bourbon its warm colour and it imparts the spirit with its characteristic vanilla and caramel notes.

Out of the Still, Into the Barrel and Into the Bottle

The bourbon rules don’t stop there. What comes out of the still and goes into the barrel must also meet requirements to earn those four little words. During distillation, the bourbon-in-the-making can’t exceed 160 proof. And when it’s ready to be ensconced in oak, it must be 125 proof. Finally, when it comes out of its two-year slumber (ideally, longer), it’s bottled at at least 80 proof. Sometimes that means it’s cut with water. Other times it comes straight out of the cask (hence the label “cask strength”), which is typically higher than the minimum 80 proof. After all, as bourbon naturally starts evaporating in the barrel it concentrates, thus the ABV levels increase.

What Does Small-batch Mean?

The words small-batch might lead you to think that the bourbon is painstakingly made by hand, with just a few thousand coveted bottles being produced each year. That’s certainly true in some cases, but not for the bourbon you’re picking up at your government liquor store or even your speciality boutique.

The technical definition of a batch, which is made up by the industry, is a 1,000 gallons or fewer. In essence, fewer barrels go into a bottling, so you’re getting the cream of the crop of carefully selected barrels. The Maker’s Mark we sampled last, for instance, follows small batch guidelines. It was sweet, smooth, and not just for sipping. We capped off the tasting with a hearty bowl of Maker’s Mark–infused bread pudding, crowned with Chantilly cream, and left with fully bellies – and a better understanding of the fascinating world of bourbon.