Myths & Legends about Bourbon
Bourbon is one of the most popular and distinctive spirits in the world, but also one of the most misunderstood. There are many myths and legends surrounding its origin, production, and quality that often confuse or mislead consumers. In this post, we will explore some of the most common bourbon myths and debunk them with facts and evidence.
Myth #1: Bourbon must be made in Kentucky This is probably the most widespread and persistent myth about bourbon. Many people believe that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, the state that produces 95% of the world’s supply of the spirit1. However, this is not true. According to the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., as long as it follows certain rules2.
These rules include:
Bourbon must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn, with the remaining 49% consisting of any combination of grains.
Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume).
Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
Bourbon must not contain any added flavoring, coloring, or other additives.
Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).
As long as a whiskey meets these criteria, it can be labeled as bourbon, regardless of where it is made. In fact, there are many bourbons that are made outside of Kentucky, such as Maker’s Mark from Loretto, [Jack Daniel’s] from Lynchburg, Tennessee, [Bulleit] from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and [Hudson Baby Bourbon] from Gardiner, New York.
Myth #2: Bourbon got its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky Another common myth is that bourbon was named after Bourbon County, a region in central Kentucky that was once part of a larger territory called Old Bourbon. The story goes that whiskey made in this area was shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in barrels marked with the name “Bourbon”, and that this name stuck with the consumers who enjoyed the whiskey. However, this is not only a myth, but an impossibility. According to Michael Veach, a bourbon historian and author, bourbon labels with the name “Bourbon” date back to as early as 1850, but the idea that it came from Bourbon County did not emerge until the 1870s. Furthermore, Veach argues that there is no evidence that whiskey was ever shipped from Bourbon County in barrels marked with its name. Instead, he suggests that bourbon was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port and market for whiskey in the 19th century. Veach claims that whiskey from Kentucky was sold as “Old Bourbon Whiskey” to distinguish it from other types of whiskey, such as rye or corn whiskey. This name then became synonymous with the style and quality of whiskey from Kentucky.
Myth #3: The longer bourbon is aged, the better it is Many people assume that the longer a bourbon is aged in oak barrels, the better it becomes. This is partly because of the influence of Scotch whisky, which often displays its age statement on the label as a sign of quality and prestige. However, this is not necessarily true for bourbon. Unlike Scotch whisky, which is aged in used barrels that impart subtle flavors over time, bourbon is aged in new barrels that have a much stronger impact on the flavor and color of the whiskey. This means that bourbon can reach its peak maturity much faster than Scotch whisky, usually between four to twelve years. Beyond this point, bourbon can become over-aged or over-oaked, resulting in a loss of balance and complexity. Instead of gaining more flavor and smoothness, over-aged bourbon can become bitter, woody, or tannic. Of course, this does not mean that all older bourbons are bad or inferior. Some bourbons can benefit from longer aging periods if they are stored in optimal conditions and have a lower barrel entry proof. For example, [Pappy Van Winkle] is a highly sought-after bourbon that ranges from 10 to 23 years old. However, these are rare exceptions rather than the norm. The best way to judge the quality of a bourbon is not by its age statement (which is optional for bourbons), but by its taste and personal preference.
These are just some of the many myths and legends that surround bourbon. By learning more about the history and facts behind this iconic American spirit, you can appreciate it more and enjoy it even more.