As you may recall, one of our Noblers decided it was time to go whole hog and get to Kentucky to learn, taste, and get into the Bourbon culture. In the recent post Bourbon Is The New Black, Bourbon has been elevated to a must-have at your bar at home. It has also become quite a conversation piece at higher end bars with knowledgeable bartenders and among friends like Noblers who enjoy not only a good drink, but also a good story. This is the second of a series of three posts from what Joe found on that trip.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: As we made our way through Kentucky Bourbon country, we asked a few locals and professional distillers, “What’s the best Bourbon?” The response was pretty unanimous: “It’s the one you like the most.” As we learned, this wasn’t a trite response—it was an honest response that reflected the fact that Bourbon as we know it today is 2 parts art, 2 parts science, and 5 parts accident. In a nutshell, Bourbon’s history is fascinating and up for personal interpretation. Taking tours at several distilleries along the Bourbon Trail/Triangle is a great way to start to piece together the history of Bourbon. (I recommend going to Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace distilleries to get a good grounding in the history, then go to local, smaller distilleries to get nuance and local folklore.) I’m not sure we’ll ever know the total truth behind what we enjoy today at our local bar, but then again, who cares? Let’s talk about a few things that, I promise you, will help you appreciate every sip you take just a little more:
- WHY WHISKEY, WHY KENTUCKY? It all began in the late 1700’s with settlers moving west and stopping in Kentucky. Many of these settlers over time were Scotch-Irish who knew a thing or two about whiskey. But they were farmers with a conundrum. From kybourbontrail.com: “Like most farmers and frontiersmen, they found that getting crops to market over narrow trails and steep mountains was a daunting task. They soon learned that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made them easily transportable, prevented the excess grain from simply rotting, and gave them some welcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier.” And the name “Bourbon”? One of our founding fathers became buddies with a hot shot in France and decided that in order to honor that friendship, he’d name a county in this limestone rich area in Kentucky “Bourbon”, a decidedly French name.
- NOT-SO-SECRET SECRET INGREDIENTS (WATER, WEATHER, WOOD):It just so happens that parts of Kentucky have a great water supply and tons of limestone that naturally filters it to be clean, flavor-free, and refreshing. It also just so happens that the weather in Kentucky fluctuates regularly and greatly. So when these immigrants began making and storing their moonshine in wooden barrels in barns, the spirits in the barrels reacted to the weather in ways that were unpredictable and gave it a unique taste.
- SETTING IT ALL IN MOTION: “Farmers [from Bourbon County area] harvested their corn in late summer and made whiskey in autumn. Before they could ship it down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, they had to wait for the spring rainy season when the currents ran faster. Besides that, once their barrels were loaded for shipping, the trip downstream could take several weeks and sometimes even months (Bourbon Heritage Center).” By the time these barrels—marked with “Bourbon County Whiskey”—finally reached New Orleans, the whiskey had aged and with the rocking motion and open weather on the boats, had taken on the flavors of the wooden barrel and the folks in the south just loved that distinct flavor. “Give me some of that Bourbon Whiskey!” people would say, referencing the barrels marked with the seal from Bourbon County Kentucky. Legend has it that Bourbon’s brown color comes from frugality: that a man by the name of Elijah Craig was so cheap, he wanted to reuse barrels and in order to make them more sterile for the next batch, would burn the insides of the barrel instead of paying for new ones. These whiskeys would be aged in barns or warehouses for years. Over time, the whiskey from Bourbon County being exported took on an even more smoky, robust flavor. This became what we know today as Bourbon.
- SO, WHAT MAKES A BOURBON A BOURBON? Today, the requirements for Bourbon are simple and specific. As the Kentucky Distillers Association states: “Bourbon is America’s only native spirit, as declared by Congress in 1964. It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels and stored at no more than 125 proof.”
- WHAT TO MAKE OF IT ALL: What we enjoy today from an ingredients perspective is pretty similar. But the nuances of weather, wood, and time are what make up the vast array of Bourbons on the shelves. What’s interesting is that even the large distilleries like Buffalo Trace are learning that Bourbon’s evolution is—quite literally—still in motion. Several years ago, one of the old barns where hundreds of barrels are stored for aging was struck by a tornado, ripping off a good portion of the roof. The distiller was panicked about losing millions of dollars until they tasted the Bourbon from barrels newly exposed to rain, snow, and direct sun. The result: euphoria—the Bourbon had taken on a new and exciting flavor nuance and these bottles aptly named “Colonel E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving” go for ~$800. Now, Buffalo Trace has a new building built with retractable roofs to try and create an ongoing brand with this distinct, weather-driven nuance. Look for these on the shelves in a year or five.
Barrels ready for transport at Woodford Reserve.
Series of century old warehouses where barrels are aged; barrels are rotated from top to bottom of the building and windows opened and closed based on how much the distiller wants to expose the barrels to weather fluctuations.