I thought it might be fun to take a break from the recipes and reviews and just dig a little deeper into that uniquely American adult beverage, bourbon. We’ll go back in history a bit, figure out just what makes a bourbon, “Bourbon” and maybe even go over a couple of way to enjoy it. So sit back, pour a couple of fingers in a glass and enjoy the ride.
There are probably just as many stories about how bourbon got its name as there are brands of bourbon. They range from first distillers, to early settlers, all the way to a Baptist minister! For me, the following story seems to ring truer than the others. Back in the time right after the Revolutionary War, the counties that were being established were huge, covering massive amounts of land. In 1785 one such county was established, Bourbon county, named for the French royal family. It covered most of the land around the Ohio River, Ohio and Kentucky. The settlers moving into this area were mostly Irish, Scottish or British who brought with them their knowledge of distillation and their love of a good whisky. As the settled in they set up stills and started making whisky using locally available grains, such as corn. As time rolled on, these large counties gradually were broken up into smaller and smaller parcels, and folks started to call the area around one of the original ports, Old Bourbon. As the local stills began to produce enough whisky to sell, it was placed in kegs and sent to the port to be shipped down river. At the port the kegs were branded with Old Bourbon as the point of origin, and the name just stuck.
Now that we know how bourbon got its name, let’s go into what it takes to be called bourbon. First off there are 2 major factors that must be met for a distilled product to be called bourbon. First, it must use at least 51% corn in the mash. Most brands use around 60-70% corn which gives bourbon that unique, sweet taste. Second, the product must be aged in NEW charred oak barrels. That’s the kicker, new barrels. There are also some limits on percentage of alcohol at different stages, aging times, etc. Why on earth are these rules in place? Well back in 1964 congress decided to call bourbon a unique product of the United States. This meant of course that rules now had to be followed to keep it distinct from other whiskies. (note: there are 2 spellings of whisky, whisky and whiskey. Scotch and Canadian are “whisky” while the rest use whiskey.)
Okay, we know where it got its name, and we know what it takes to be called bourbon. Now let’s go into the brands. Too many to mention here, but the common ones are Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, and any number of about 40 that start with Old. There are also small batch bourbons, like Bulleit, that are quite good. My all time favorite though is Maker’s Mark. So much so I’m a Maker’s Mark Ambassador. Among other cool things, this gets me my name on a barrel of Maker’s Mark and a chance to get a bottle of product from that barrel. Kind of a cool idea.
Here are a few ways to enjoy bourbon in moderation as always.
Bourbon and branch water: This is my favorite. Take a chilled rocks glass with 2 ice cubes in it. Pour about 3 ounces of Maker’s Mark over the the ice, then a splash of spring or mineral water. Find a nice comfortable chair, preferably outside. Sip. Savor. Repeat. The best.
Bourbon and Lemonade: Put 2 tsp of sugar and the juice from one lemon in the bottom of a tall glass. Muddle together with one mint leaf. Fill glass with crushed ice and add 2 ounces of bourbon. Fill to the top with cold water and stir to mix. Add a lemon slice to side of glass.
Bourbon Manhattan: 2 ounces of bourbon, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, dash of bitters, dash of cherry juice. Put all in a mixing glass, add ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass or strain over ice in a rocks glass. Add a maraschino cherry for garnish.
Get the grill goin’, the bourbon flowin’ and enjoy the summer.