Bourbon – A Brief History and the 3 Classic Bourbon Drinks You should Know

Bourbon – A Brief History and the 3 Classic Bourbon Drinks You should Know

When I think of spirits, I definitely think of brown spirits and by brown spirits I mean whiskey and by whiskey, I mean bourbon.

I love Irish whiskey and also enjoy Scotch and plan to write on that down the road but for today it is about bourbon.

You probably know that I have written about rum and gin and now attempt to tackle the great American whiskey that is bourbon.

Bourbon – A Brief History

Whiskey at its base is fermented grain (usually wheat and rye), mixed with yeast and good water and aged. Historically it hails from Scotland (Scotch), then moved to Ireland (Irish whiskey – John Jameson was a Scot who emigrated) and then Irish and Scottish settlers brought their mash recipe to the New World and now we have Canadian whiskey (no thanks) and American whiskey, of which bourbon has become the most well known and popular.

Like a lot of things in our history, something came from somewhere and was then adapted by the local folks to what was readily available and then a “new thing” was born.

Same can be said for bourbon.

As I mentioned, Irish and Scottish settlers came to the young American colonies/country and brought their traditions with them. Guess what was unique to North (and South) America that wasn’t in Europe? Yup, corn. Corn, being a grain as well as was wheat, also fermented nicely and after just one mash, was quite a bit sweeter than its all wheat counterpart. Thus became the base for arguably the greatest of whiskies in the world.

Making Bourbon

In addition to the abundance of corn in America and the fact that so many Scottish folks settled in and around Kentucky and Tennessee, the area limestone served as a perfect natural filter for area river water. This great water, combined with the old world base recipe, made for a slightly sweeter and distinctly American whiskey.

One of the other reasons bourbon made its original home in Kentucky was the weather. You see to make bourbon it isn’t enough to ferment the grain but it also has to be aged; which means time and also means that as the whiskey sits, it would have to be able to take sometimes mellow and sometimes dramatic increases and decreases in temperature. Before modern, climate controlled aging rooms, aging was done in big drafty warehouses that didn’t yet have fancy thermostats, insulation, and other technologies we see today that can help minimize aging mistakes. For many early distillers this was their livelihood and since they couldn’t sell right after the fermentation was done, they were literally stuffing their future earnings into barrels and then patiently waiting.  This was a huge risk and the weather in and around Kentucky helped mitigate that risk.

As the weather changes, the vapor, or “angel’s share” dissipates into the air.  As you can probably imagine, this would leave space in the barrel. A typical US bourbon barrel is 53 gallons and by the time it is ready to drink, there could be a loss of as much as half (18 year)!

Speaking of barrels, bourbon is required to be aged in new, charred French oak barrels. You know the last name “Cooper?” That name literally translates as “barrel maker” and comes from the trade where men (primarily) built these oak barrels and then fit or “cooped” them with metal bands to hold them together.

The light yet deep color of bourbon comes from aging the spirit in these barrels. Because these wood barrels are porous, and with the changes in temperature, these barrels expand and contract and while that happens the spirit leeches into the oak and over time, that familiar brownish color we expect from a good bourbon begins to emerge.

To be considered bourbon, there are a few things that have to take place. Here is a brief list:

  • At least 51% of the grain has to be corn
  • Must be made in the USA – since 1964 by Congressional order!
  • To be marketed as bourbon, has to be aged for a minimum of 2 years. You can drink it before but it can’t be called bourbon and it probably won’t look or taste quite as good
  • Distilled to a maximum of 160 proof
  • Aged to a maximum of 125 proof (offset with water only!)
  • And the shocker – does NOT have to be from Kentucky (or Tennessee) to be considered bourbon!

Again, this post wasn’t intended to be exhaustive by any stretch, rather fun, maybe something for a future trivia night.

Now to important matters, the classic cocktails.

3 Classic Bourbon Cocktails

Old Fashioned



Or my fave, with a cigar and one “rock.”

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