12 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Bourbon, But Really, Really Should

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Bourbon aging at Four Roses distillery. Note the people in the lower right to get an idea of the size of these barrels. Photo: Eric Rogell.

In my last article (read it here), I explained the 7 things that make bourbon bourbon, and not just whiskey. This is part two of that article, and it reveals more unique and fascinating facts about America’s proprietary spirit. Facts, that as a longtime bourbon drinker, I didn’t know until I spoke with Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller for Four Roses Bourbon, and fountain of bourbon knowledge.

1. There are more barrels of bourbon in the state of Kentucky, than there are people in the state of Kentucky.

More than 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and since most if it is aged for a minimum of two years and on average 6-8 years, there are millions and millions of barrels on racks in aging rooms throughout the state.

2. Bourbon was one of the first taxed items in America.

The very first tax imposed under President George Washington was a spirits tax used to fund the Revolutionary War. (And resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion… but is isn’t a history class.)

3. Bourbon is the result of wanting to preserve and ship corn.

In my last article, I said that one of the rules for this spirit to be called “bourbon” is that it must be at least 51% corn. To preserve the abundant corn crops in Kentucky a couple of centuries ago, and to make it easier to ship, they distilled it down. And the result was bourbon.

4. It got its name from the county it was born.

They made a unique and popular whiskey in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and folks used to specifically ask for “that whiskey from Bourbon.” The name stuck.

5. Limestone is key.

According to distillers like Rutledge, sure you can take the ingredients and make bourbon anywhere, but the key to the uniqueness and great taste of Kentucky bourbon is the water. It’s naturally filtered through limestone.

6. Bourbon was once sold as medicine.

During Prohibition, distilleries were still making bourbon because they were licensed to sell it for “medicinal purposes.” People who convinced friendly doctors they needed the drink were prescribed one pint every 10 days.

7. 100% of the color comes from the char.

In the last article I explained that nothing can be added to bourbon to flavor or color it, so that rich, amber hue results entirely from the char given the new American White Oak barrels before the spirit is put in.

8. 66% of the flavor comes from the barrel.

Those American White Oak barrels do more than color the bourbon, they also flavor it. Two-thirds of the flavor in bourbon comes directly from the sugars in the barrel.

9. The yeast is a closely guarded trade secret.

According to Rutledge, every distiller in Kentucky has their own proprietary yeast that they use for their bourbon. And they are closely guarded secrets. During our tour of Four Roses’ distillery, we were told that a specific person handles the yeast during the process. When it’s time, they are called, they pour the yeast in, and leave. No one else is allowed to handle it, lest they pocket some to be analyzed and copied by another distiller.

10. Bourbon begins life as beer.

The brewing process is very similar to the brewing process for beer. In fact, in the beginning stages, the product is called “beer” before it continues the process to become whiskey.

11. Older isn’t better.

Unlike other whiskeys that mellow and become more valued with more time in the barrel, bourbon peaks at 6-8 years. A high rye is closer to 10 years. After that, the sugars come off and it picks up too much of the wood flavor.

12. But that’s ok, because bourbon ages fast.

In a test, they found that to get a Scotch whisky to equal a bourbon aged 6 years, they would have to keep it in the barrel for a 22.4 years.

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