What is bourbon?
Writer’s Note! Before we discuss bourbon, I must point out there is a further difference here between whiskey and whisky. No, the spelling is definitely not interchangeable … put simply, whisky comes from Scotland and whiskey from the United States. Generally speaking. That statement has probably sent whiskey/whisky purists into meltdown (sorry, Scotland!) as there are a whole host of other subtle variations between the two, but for the purposes of this article, that’s really all you need to know. We’ll do something bigger on this another time.
The origins of this most all-American of drinks are vague, but the general consensus is that the first bourbon was made in the 1700s by enterprising settlers from Scotland, Ireland and other parts of Europe. When these intrepid folks headed to the New World, they brought with them a wealth of knowledge about distilling, and of course a healthy taste for the ‘water of life’ (as whisky is often known). Many put down roots in the southern states, including Kentucky, where they found a plentiful supply of corn. This crop was high in sugar and grew enthusiastically in the southern climate - the perfect ingredient for distilling. Eureka!
Important Bourbon Fact No 1:
There is of course some debate about what makes bourbon, bourbon. Purists argue that it’s only a true bourbon if it hails from the Southern state of Kentucky, whilst others feel that just being made in America is enough. Who’s right? You decide.
The popularity of this smooth amber spirit grew exponentially throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, due to its relatively low cost and delicious flavours of caramel and vanilla. The manufacturing process was honed over time into the exacting method used today, which involves several key elements such as the requirement that the spirit is aged in new American oak barrels (unlike many other whiskies, which often re-use barrels) and must go into the barrel at no more than 125-proof. This process is primarily what differentiates bourbon from other types of American whiskey.