National Bourbon Day is June 14 and we're celebrating by trying a few new bourbons and sharing with you some ideas, but we're also sharing a little history of bourbon. After all, you should know what's in your glass.
When did we start making Bourbon in the U.S.?
More than 300 years ago, Scottish and Irish settlers built their homes in the area we now call Virginia and Kentucky and started growing corn, as it is the only grain native to the area. When distilled, corn makes excellent whiskey because of its inherent sweetness.
The other reason that region makes some of the world's best bourbon is geography. They start the process with some of the cleanest and purest water possible being located in the Limestone Shelf region and adjacent to the Kentucky River. The natural limestone shelf filters out impurities and aftertaste.
This region is where all major American whiskeys are still made today; high-calcium, low-iron water is the perfect blend for making whisky.
The Father of Bourbon
Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century, but it wasn't given the name “bourbon” until the 1850s, and the etymology until somewhere in the 1870s.
Elijah Craig is known as “The Father of Bourbon.” In 1789, Baptist minister Elijah Craig opened a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. He initially was storing his distilled spirits in old fishing barrels; spoiler alert: fish-wood-soaked spirits aren't too tasty, so this led Craig to purify the insides of the barrels by charring them. Craig stamped the barrels with their county of origin (Bourbon County) and sent them on a 90-day journey to New Orleans.
Over the course of that 90-day journey, his distilled whiskey absorbed some of that charred oak and combined to create a more smokey, oaky, smooth flavor that the New Orleanians couldn't get enough of. They wanted more of that “whiskey from Bourbon.”
Does Bourbon Have To Be Made In Kentucky to be Called Bourbon?
The technical answer? No, it does not.
Whiskey may be made anywhere, but in 1964, Congress declared Bourbon “America's Native Spirit,” meaning in order to be called Bourbon, it has to be made in the United States. However, since 95 percent of the world's bourbon is made in Kentucky, bourbon drinkers know that really just means Kentucky—and when you hear the word bourbon, most people have a strong association with the American South, and Kentucky in particular.
The other key component is that Bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn. Kentucky has some of the richest and fertile soil in the country, and it happens to be great for growing corn. In fact, Kentucky has been corn country since the late 1700s.
How to Drink Bourbon
You've probably heard people order bourbon (or any whisky) in a bar and ask for neat, on the rocks, etc., and not really known what it meant. Here are some descriptions to make you sound like a pro if you're new to drinking bourbon. There isn't really a wrong way to drink bourbon, only the way you prefer and a lack of open-mindedness to learning more about what goes in your glass.
Drinking a bourbon (or any beverage) “neat” means that it's served to you at room temperature, straight, no ice, no additives. This style is meant to be sipped. You will be able to appreciate the liquor in its purest form since there is nothing else to alter the aromatic or flavor.
Bourbon “with water”
Unless you are drinking a “cask strength” or “barrel proof” bourbon, your bourbon probably has had some water added to it after aging before bottling. Adding water allows the bottler to reach the specific (and consistent) proof level across all bottlings.
Some whisky tasting rooms may serve you optional water to dilute the bourbon just a touch. Ordering your bourbon “with water” can open up the bourbon's flavor profile making it easier to pick out aromatics and flavor more readily. Some will argue water is a dealbreaker, others will say water is your friend. Essentially, water will take the edge off the heat and spice and allow the sweetness to come through a bit more. A lot of the unfiltered, barrel-strength whiskeys you find these days actually do well with a bit of dilution. Not sure about having your bourbon with water? Start with a bourbon neat, take a few sips, then add a few drops of water and try to observe the differences.
Bourbon “On the Rocks”
“On the rocks” is a great way to try any bourbon if you are a beginner. Simply put, “on the rocks” means over a few ice cubes. Add a finger or two of bourbon to the ice in your glass.
Once you decide if bourbon is for you, if you are going to use ice, I highly recommend one large round ball or cube of ice in lieu of a bunch of smaller pieces. The slower dilution you'll thank me for later. Even better yet, is whiskey stones or frozen stainless steel balls. They neither dilute nor impart the taste of anything in your freezer.
Bourbon “With a Twist”
Bourbon “With a Twist” means your bourbon is served with a thin strip of citrus peel, usually lemon or orange.
Bourbon “With Lemon/Lime”
Bourbon “With Lemon/Lime” simply means served with a lemon or lime wedge on the side of the glass.
Bulleit Old Fashioned
Having a bourbon-based cocktail is a great option, too. Who doesn't love a great classic like an Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, a Derby, or a simple Bourbon and Ginger Ale?
“Bulleit (brand name) Old Fashioned (cocktail name)” is how you tell the bartender what brand of bourbon you’d like in your cocktail. Asking for a “Bulleit Old Fashioned,” for example, tells the bartender you want an Old Fashioned (a traditionally easy cocktail with whiskey, sugar, bitters, ice, and a lemon peel) made with Bulleit Bourbon.
How to Order Bourbon at a Bar
Order by name. If you aren't a pro, you probably at least know a few of the major players like Maker's Mark, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Bulleit. Start there. You won't look like a total novice. You can always ask what they have available for bourbon options, too. Every bar has a different stock, but remember, you pay more when you ask for a specific brand than if you take whatever the cheapest option is but I also guarantee it will be a better experience. If you know the style of bourbon, even better. If not, go with the brand and your bartender will take it from there. If you order a Bulleit Neat, and they keep more than one Bulleit available, they'll ask which one you want.
So now you know to use the name, next you add your style preference, Do you want neat? On the rocks? Name first. Style last. It's pretty easy, but you will look a little silly if you do it the other way around.
“I'd like a Bulleit, Neat, please.”
“I'd like a Woodford Reserve, On the Rocks, please.”
See? Easy peasy!
Try These Bourbons for National Bourbon Day on June 14
Do you have a favorite bourbon? Share with us below!