I'm going to be the guest lecturer at a private Bourbon party in a few weeks, and while preparing for the event, I made this small list of information that I am planning to pass out to those in attendance. I thought I'd post it here for some of you to glance at in case you needed a refresher!
Note: I only included the distilleries we are planning to taste.
-Bourbon must be at least 51% corn-based and must be aged in new, charred barrels for a minimum of two years.
-While the main ingredient in a bourbon mash bill must be corn, there is usually a high percentage of rye and a smaller percentage of barley in the formula as well. Wheated bourbons, such as Van Winkle, use wheat instead of rye as the flavor grain.
-Bourbon does NOT have to be from Bourbon County or from Kentucky.
-Jack Daniels and George Dickel are NOT bourbons. They are technically Tennessee Whiskies because they are 1) made in Tennessee, and 2) filtered through a charcoal filtration column, which takes out unwanted flavors and jump starts the aging process.
-Whiskies aged less than four years must release an age statement on the bottle, pushing distillers to age for at least that period of time.
-“Small Batch” does not mean that the whiskey was made in small batches, only that it was likely selected and blended from a “small batch” of selected barrels.
-“Single Barrel” means the whiskey in the bottle is the product of one barrel only and not the blended product of numerous samples.
While Bourbon does not legally have to originate from Bourbon County, KY, it is named after the region formerly known as Bourbon, which used to encompass a greater area. The region had since been subdivided into smaller counties, but many residents kept calling the area “Old Bourbon.” Whiskey at the end of the 18th century was primarily made from rye and all whiskey barrels that were shipped off were stamped with the name of the port from which they were sent. The whiskey being moved from the area of “Old Bourbon” county was therefore stamped with that signifier. When consumers began to ask about this richer and more flavorful style of whiskey, they were told it was old bourbon because that was the name displayed on the barrel. Over time, people began to believe this meant the whiskey itself was aged and that the name must refer to the now-diminished Bourbon County, when in fact in referred to neither. The whiskey from this region was made with corn, so over time other producers began to label their new corn whiskies as bourbon to signify to customers that their whiskey was of the same style.
Distilleries – There are around twenty active distilleries in the United States that are currently making whiskey, but we are going to focus on a few of the important bourbon producers here.
Jim Beam – Has distilleries in both in Clermont and Boston, KY and is known for two distinct styles of bourbon – the formula found in the eponymous Jim Beam and the other sold as Old Granddad. The distilleries do not make uniquely styled whiskies and it is not really possible to decipher which came from where.
Knob Creek – A 9 year old version of the Jim Beam formula from selected barrels. Bottled at 100 proof, charred White Oak barrel really adds a sweetness and roundness to the palate. A rich and full-bodied bourbon.
Heaven Hill – Located in Louisville, the distillery is located on the site of the old Bernheim distillery. It lost its original location to a huge fire in 1996 and bought the new distillery to begin resuming production there in 2000. They make a heavily-ryed mashbill that goes into the Evan Williams bourbons. They make Rittenhouse Rye as well as a wheated bourbon known as Old Fitzgerald.
Elijah Craig – Most of the Elijah Craig bottles on the market today still come from the original distillery in Bardstown before the fire gutted it. It is known for its outstanding balance of both sweetness and spice. There is both a 12 and 18 year old version available.
Four Roses – Located in Lawrenceburg, this storied distillery has a long history dating back to 1818. It is now owned by Kirin Brewery, but is run by Jim Rutledge – one of the best distillers working in the business today. They are a very unique distillery because they make ten different bourbon formulas: 2 different mash bills with 5 different strains of yeast. They are known for their more mellow and delicate style of bourbon.
Four Roses Yellow Label – The only one of their whiskies to feature a blend of all 10 formulas, this is an outstanding example of elegance and restraint even with the new charred barrel influence.
Buffalo Trace – Located in Frankfurt, BT makes several different formulas including both rye and wheat-flavored. They have an incredible amount of brands including the Buffalo Trace standard bottling, Sazerac, George T. Stagg, Handy, Weller, Blanton’s, Van Winkle, and more. The distillery is owned by the Sazerac company.
Buffalo Trace – This is one of the most popular bourbons on the market right now, not only for straight sipping but for cocktails as well. It has a rich texture, shows baking spice on the palate, and really displays the corn flavor from the mash bill.
Willett’s – While not technically a functioning distillery yet again, this dated site of the original Willett family is slated to begin producing whiskey again very very soon. For the time being, Even Kulsveen has organized a company known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers which outsources its desires to other distilleries. They then take the spirit and age it in their own rickhouse in Bardstown and bottle it at their own plant. Their portfolio includes Willett, Johnny Drum, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and others.
Black Maple Hill – One of the most popular whiskies we have ever sold, this is a double outsourcing. KBD buys the barrels from a distillery, and CVI in San Carlos has KBD bottle it for them as Black Maple Hill. It is a more rustic and spicy style of bourbon that really caters to the craft whiskey fans.