Bourbon whiskey

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A selection of Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys offered at a liquor store in Decatur, Georgia
Evan Williams bourbon whiskey

Bourbon whiskey /bɜːrbən/ is a type of American whiskey, a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name derives from the French Bourbon dynasty, although the precise inspiration for the whiskey's name is unsettled; contenders include Bourbon County in Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.[1] Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century.[2] The use of the term "bourbon" for the whiskey has been traced to the 1820s, and the term began to be used consistently in Kentucky in the 1870s.[1] While bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with the American South, and with Kentucky in particular. As of 2014, the distillers' wholesale market revenue for bourbon sold within the U.S. is about $2.7 billion, and bourbon makes up about two-thirds of the $1.6 billion of U.S. exports of distilled spirits.[3][4]


American white oak barrels filled with new bourbon whiskey rest in a rack house, giving bourbon its well-known copper color

Distilling probably was brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including English, Irish, Welsh, German and French) who began to farm the area in earnest. The origin of bourbon as a distinct form of whiskey is not well documented. There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others.

For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller credited with many Kentucky firsts (e.g., fulling mill, paper mill, ropewalk) who is also said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process which gives bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste.[5] Across the county line in Bourbon County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product as Bourbon whiskey. Spears' home, Stone Castle, warehouse and spring house survive; one can drive by the Spears' home on Clay-Kiser Road.

Although still popular and often repeated, the Craig legend is apocryphal. Similarly, the Spears story is a local favorite, rarely repeated outside the county. There likely was no single "inventor" of bourbon, which developed into its present form only in the late 19th century. Essentially any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey and charring the barrels for better flavor had also been known in Europe for centuries.[6] The late date of the Bourbon County etymology has led Louisville historian Michael Veach to dispute its authenticity. He proposes that the whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port where shipments of Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac.[1]

Another proposed origin of the name is the association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon (this consisted of the original Bourbon County of Virginia as organized in 1785, a region that included much of today's Eastern Kentucky – including 34 of today's counties in Kentucky).[7] This area included the current Bourbon County of Kentucky, which became a county of Kentucky when Kentucky was separated from Virginia as a new state in 1792.[8][9][10]

When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal port on the Ohio River, Maysville, Kentucky, from which whiskey and other products were shipped. "Old Bourbon" was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.[10]

Although many distilleries operated in Bourbon County historically, there were no distilleries operating there between 1919, when Prohibition began in Kentucky, and late 2014, when a small distillery opened – a period of 95 years.[11][12]

Prohibition was devastating to the bourbon industry. With the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919, all distilleries were forced to stop operating, although a few were granted permits to bottle existing stocks of medicinal whiskey, and later a few were allowed to resume production when the stocks ran out. Distilleries that were granted permits to produce or bottle medicinal whiskey included the Brown-Forman distillery in Frankfort, James Thompson and Brothers, the Schenley Distillery (the modern-day Buffalo Trace Distillery), and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery.[13][not in citation given]

A refinement often dubiously[14] credited to James C. Crow was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation is conditioned with some amount of spent mash. Spent mash is also known as spent beer, distillers' spent grain, stillage, and slop or feed mash, so named because it is used as animal feed. The acid introduced by using the sour mash controls the growth of bacteria that could taint the whiskey and creates a proper pH balance for the yeast to work.

A concurrent resolution adopted by the United States Congress in 1964 declared bourbon to be a "distinctive product of the United States" and asked "the appropriate agencies of the United States Government... [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as 'Bourbon Whiskey'."[15][16] Federal regulation now defines "bourbon whiskey" to only include "bourbon" produced in the United States.[17]

In recent years, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey (which is sometimes regarded as a different type of spirit but which generally meets the legal requirements for being called bourbon) have enjoyed significant growth and popularity. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the industry trade group, tracks sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey together.[3]

According to the Distilled Spirits Council, during 2009–2014, the volume of 9-liter cases of whiskey increased by 28.5% overall.[4] Higher-end bourbon and whiskeys experienced the greatest growth: during 2009–14 the volume of the value segment increased by 12.1%, premium by 25.8%, high-end premium by 27.8% and super-premium by 123.8%.[4] Gross supplier revenues (including federal excise tax) for U.S. bourbon and Tennessee whiskey increased by 46.7% over the 2009–14 period, with the greatest growth coming from high-end products (18.7% growth for value, 33.6% for premium, 44.5% for high-end premium, and 137.2% for super-premium).[4] In 2014, more than 19 million nine-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold in the U.S., generating almost $2.7 billion in wholesale distillery revenue.[4] U.S. exports of bourbon whiskey surpassed $1 billion for the first time in 2013; distillers hailed the rise of a "golden age of Kentucky bourbon" and predicted further growth.[3] In 2014, it was estimated that U.S. bourbon whiskey exports surpassed $1 billion (making up the majority of the U.S. total of $1.6 billion in spirits exports).[3] Major export markets for U.S. spirits are, in descending order: Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and France.[3] The largest percentage increases in U.S. exports were, in descending order: Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Israel and United Arab Emirates.[3] Key elements of growth in the markets showing the largest increases have been changes of law, trade agreements, and reductions of tariffs, as well as increased consumer demand for premium-category spirits.[18]

Legal requirements[edit]

Bourbon's legal definition varies somewhat from country to country, but many trade agreements require the name bourbon to be reserved for products made in the United States. The U.S. regulations for labeling and advertising bourbon apply only to products made for consumption within the United States; they do not apply to distilled spirits made for export.[19] Canadian law requires products labeled bourbon to be made in the United States and also to conform to the requirements that apply within the United States. But in countries other than the United States and Canada, products labeled bourbon may not adhere to the same standards. For example, in the European Union, products labeled as bourbon are not required to conform to all of the regulations that apply within the United States, though they still must be made in the U.S.

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 C.F.R. 5) state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption[19] must be:

Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period.[23] Products aged for as little as three months are sold as bourbon.[24] The exception is straight bourbon, which has a minimum aging requirement of two years. In addition, any bourbon aged less than four years must include an age statement on its label.[25][26]

Bourbon that meets the above requirements, has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may (but is not required to) be called straight bourbon.[27]

  • Bourbon that is labeled as straight that has been aged under four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.[28]
  • Bourbon that has an age stated on its label must be labeled with the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle (not counting the age of any added neutral grain spirits in a bourbon that is labeled as blended, as neutral-grain spirits are not considered whiskey under the regulations and are not required to be aged at all).[25]

Bottled-in-bond bourbon is a sub-category of straight bourbon, and must be aged at least four years.

Bourbon that is labeled blended (or as a blend) may contain added coloring, flavoring, and other spirits (such as un-aged neutral grain spirits); but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon.[29][30]

Bourbon which has been aged for fewer than 3 years cannot legally be referred to as whiskey (or whisky) in the EU.[31]

Nineteenth century bourbon bottle

Geographic origin[edit]

On May 4, 1964, the United States Congress recognized bourbon whiskey as a "distinctive product of the United States" by concurrent resolution. Bourbon may be produced anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits, but most brands are produced in Kentucky, where bourbon production has a strong historical association.[32] Iron-free water that has been filtered through the high concentrations of limestone, unique to the area, is often touted by bourbon distillers in Kentucky as a signature step in the bourbon-making process.[33]

Used bourbon barrels awaiting fresh contents in Scotland

On August 2, 2007, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) officially declaring September 2007 to be National Bourbon Heritage Month, marking the history of bourbon whiskey.[34] Notably, the resolution claimed that Congress had declared bourbon to be "America's Native Spirit" in its 1964 resolution.[34] However, the 1964 resolution had not contained such a statement; it had declared bourbon to be a distinctive product identifiable with the United States (in a similar way that Scotch is considered identifiable with Scotland).[15][35] The resolution was passed again in 2008.[35]

As of 2014, approximately 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. The state has more than 5.3 million barrels of bourbon that are aging – a number that exceeds the state population.[3][36][37]

Bardstown, Kentucky is home to the annual Bourbon Festival held each September. It has been called the "Bourbon Capital of the World" by the Bardstown Tourism Commission[38] and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival organizers[39] who have registered the phrase as a trademark. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is the name of a tourism promotion program organized by the Kentucky Distillers' Association and aimed at attracting visitors to the distilleries in Kentucky, primarily including Four Roses (Lawrenceburg), Heaven Hill (Bardstown), Jim Beam (Clermont), Maker's Mark (Loretto), Town Branch (Lexington), Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg), and Woodford Reserve (Versailles).[40]

Tennessee is home to other major bourbon makers, though most prefer to call their product "Tennessee whiskey" instead, including giant Jack Daniel's. It is legally defined under Tennessee House Bill 1084, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and at least one other international trade agreement as the recognized name for a straight bourbon whiskey produced in Tennessee.[41][42] It is also required to meet the legal definition of bourbon under Canadian law.[43]

Although some Tennessee whiskey makers maintain that a state-mandated pre-aging filtration through chunks of maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process, makes its flavor distinct from bourbon, U.S. regulations defining bourbon neither require nor prohibit its use.[23][41][44][45] Prior to 2013 the Lincoln County Process was not legally required for products identified as Tennessee whiskey.[A]

Bourbon also was and is made in other U.S. states.[48][49][50]

Production process[edit]

To be legally sold as bourbon, the whiskey's mash bill requires a minimum of 51% corn, with the remainder being of any cereal grain.[2] A mash bill that contains wheat instead of rye produces what is known as a wheated bourbon.[51][52] The grain is ground and mixed with water. Usually mash from a previous distillation is added to ensure consistency across batches, creating a sour mash. Finally, yeast is added and the mash is fermented. It is distilled to (typically) between 65% and 80% alcohol using either a traditional alembic (or pot still) or the much less expensive continuous still. Most modern bourbons are initially run off using a column still then redistilled in a "doubler" (alternatively known as a "thumper" or "retort") that is basically a pot still.[53]

The resulting clear spirit, called "white dog", is placed in charred new oak containers for aging. In practice, these containers are generally barrels made from American white oak. The spirit gains its color and much of its flavor from the caramelized sugars and vanillins in the charred wood. "Straight" bourbon must be aged at least two years, and blended bourbon must contain at least 51% straight bourbon on a proof gallon basis (i.e., most of the alcohol in the blend must be from straight bourbon).[54] The remainder of the spirits in a blended bourbon may be neutral grain spirits that are not aged at all. If a product is labeled merely as "bourbon whiskey" rather than "straight" or "blended", no specific minimum aging period is prescribed – only that the product has been "stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers".[54] Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they age in wood. Changes to the spirit also occur due to evaporation and chemical processes such as oxidation. Lower-priced bourbons tend to be aged relatively briefly, and even for higher-priced bourbons, "maturity" rather than a particular age duration, is often the goal, as over-aging bourbons can negatively affect the flavor of the bourbon (making it taste woody, bitter, or unbalanced).

After maturing, bourbon is withdrawn from the barrel and is typically filtered and diluted with water. It is then bottled at no less than 80 US proof (40% abv).[22] While most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 US proof, other common proofs are 86, 90, and 100. All "bottled in bond" bourbon is 100 proof. Some higher-proof bottlings are marketed as "barrel proof", meaning that they have not been diluted or have been only lightly diluted after removal from the barrels. Bourbon whiskey may be sold at less than 80 proof but must be labeled as "diluted bourbon".

After processing, barrels remain saturated with up to ten gallons of bourbon, though 2–3 is the norm.[55] They may not be reused for bourbon, and most are sold to distilleries in Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, and the Caribbean for aging other spirits. Some are employed in the manufacture of various barrel-aged products, including amateur and professionally brewed bourbon-barrel-aged beer, barbecue sauce, wine, hot sauce, and others. Since 2011, Jim Beam has employed barrel rinsing on a large scale to extract bourbon from its used barrels, mixing the extract with a 6-year-old Beam bourbon to create a 90-proof product that it sells as "Devil's Cut".[56]

The bottling operation for bourbon is the process of filtering, mixing together straight whiskey from different barrels (sometimes from different distilleries), dilution with water, blending with other ingredients (if producing blended bourbon), and filling of containers to produce the final product that is marketed to consumers. The phrase "bottled by", by itself, means only that. Only if the bottler operates the distillery that produced the whiskey may "distilled by" be added to the label.[57]

Labeling requirements for bourbon and other alcoholic beverages (including the requirements for what is allowed to be called bourbon under U.S. law) are defined in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.[58] No whiskey made outside the United States may be labeled "bourbon" or sold as "bourbon" inside the United States (and in various other countries that have trade agreements with the United States to recognize bourbon as a distinctive product of the United States).


Bourbon is served in a variety of manners, including neat, diluted with water, over ice ("on the rocks"), with other beverages in simple mixed drinks, and into cocktails, including the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the whiskey sour, and the mint julep. Bourbon is also used in cooking and was historically used for medicinal purposes.[2]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Prior to 2013, the use of the Lincoln County Process was not actually required for making products identified as Tennessee whiskey. However, on May 13, 2013, the Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee signed House Bill 1084, requiring the Lincoln County process and the existing requirements for bourbon to be used for products identified as "Tennessee whiskey". As a grandfathering measure, the law exempted one small producer, Benjamin Prichard's.[46][47] As U.S. federal law requires statements of origin on labels to be accurate, and various international trade agreements also codify this requirement, the Tennessee law effectively gives a firm definition to Tennessee whiskey.


  1. ^ a b c Kiniry, Laura. "Where Bourbon Really Got Its Name and More Tips on America's Native Spirit". 13 June 2013.
  2. ^ a b c Zeldes, Leah A. (2011-02-23). "Eat this! Bourbon, America's native spirits". Dining Chicago. Chicago's Restaurant & Entertainment Guide, Inc. Archived from the original on 2011-09-14. Retrieved 2011-06-30. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Associated Press, "Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey Sales Up in US; Exports Top $1B" Archived 2015-12-30 at the Wayback Machine. (February 3, 2015).
  4. ^ a b c d e On America's Whiskey Trail Archived 2015-05-25 at the Wayback Machine., Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
  5. ^ John E. Kleber, ed., The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 103
  6. ^ Cowdery, Charles K., "Who Invented Bourbon?" Malt Advocate Magazine, (4th Quarter 2002), pp. 72-75
  7. ^ The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, John T. Edge, volume editor, Volume 7: Foodways, p. 128.
  8. ^ Leon Howlett, The Kentucky Bourbon Experience: A Visual Tour of Kentucky's Bourbon Distilleries, "Bourbon- A Short History", 2012, pg. 7.
  9. ^ Charles K. Cowdery, How Bourbon Whiskey Really Got Its Famous Name Archived 2008-05-13 at the Wayback Machine., The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 3, Number 1, July 1996.
  10. ^ a b Cowdery, Charles K., Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, p. 25
  11. ^ "Bourbon County Kentucky". Archived from the original on 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2012-04-19. 
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  13. ^ "Kentucky Bourbon Timeline". Kentucky Distillers Association. Retrieved 19 March 2018. 
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  15. ^ a b 78 Stat. 1208 Archived 2015-09-24 at the Wayback Machine. (1964).
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  28. ^ "27 C.F.R. sec 5.40(a)". Archived from the original on 2018-03-18. Retrieved 2015-07-15. 
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  42. ^ SICE - Free Trade Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Chile Archived 2016-06-13 at the Wayback Machine., Section E, Article 3.15 "Distinctive products".
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  55. ^ "Distilleries". Modern Marvels. Season 11. Episode 27. 14 July 2004. 
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  57. ^ Office of the Federal Register. Payne, Kenneth R.; Barksdale, Elmer, eds. Title 27 CFR 5.36 Name and address (PDF). Code of Federal Regulations 27: Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms (Technical report). Government Printing Office. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 1, 2015. Retrieved January 1, 2015. Where distilled spirits are bottled by or for the distiller thereof, there may be stated, in lieu of the phrase 'bottled by', 'packed by', or 'filled by', followed by the bottler's name (or trade name) and address, the phrase 'distilled by' ... 
  58. ^ "27 CFR 5.22 - The standards of identity". LII / Legal Information Institute. Archived from the original on 2017-01-30. Retrieved 2016-10-04. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]