Bourbon Aged In New Oak Barrels
What is it about bourbon that inspires such strong emotions in people? Perhaps it is the perfect that the alcohol itself has on them. Some people even make claims that the United States as a nation would not exist without corn liquor. We won’t go into that but it can’t be denied that the United States’ only native spirit is bourbon whiskey. Bourbon is made from corn or sometimes wheat and malt.
The definition of bourbon and the way it differs from other whiskey has been the source of some confusion so let’s begin with the basics. Bourbon is a whiskey as opposed to whisky like Scotch. Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn and is then aged in new white oak barrels. It is important that the barrels were never used before. The inside of the barrels are charred by a torch and then filled with the bourbon. For a spirit to be bourbon, it can’t have flavor or color additives. The only ingredients allowed are corn, wheat or rye, malt and water. bourbon gets its color from the inside of the barrel. Bourbon also has to be between 80 and 160 proof those very few are ever over 130.
Now that we’ve covered the basic definition of oak barrel aged bourbon, there are five facts about it which you probably didn’t know. First off, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. It is often times incorrectly assumed that because bourbon is named for Bourbon County where it was originally made, that all bourbon must come from Kentucky. After all, Jack Daniels is pretty much the same thing and its made in Tennessee. Maker’s Mark distiller Kevin Smith says whiskey can be bourbon as long as its distilled in the United States. Jack Daniels is not bourbon because it is filtered through charcoal and maple wood before the oak barrel aging process. This extra step prevents it from being bourbon.
Secondly, bourbon distillers are only allowed to use their barrels one time. When the distillers are done with the barrels, they are used to age other non bourbon whiskey. This is a wise practice given the fact that the barrels call about $120 each. Jim bean and Makers Mark actually send some of their barrels to Scotland where they are used to age single malt Scotch.
The official whiskey of the Kentucky derby is not actually bourbon but a julep. All though juleps call for bourbon as a primary ingredient, the fact that they are aged in second hand barrels which have been used previously disqualifies them as being bourbon.
The weather during the aging process has a profound effect on the taste of the Bourbon. During aging, barrels filled with bourbon are kept in large warehouses known as Rick Houses. Typically Rick Houses are not climate controlled and the weather outside causes the wood of the barrels to contract and expand which give the whiskey different flavors.
Bourbon distilleries were converted to make fuel, alcohol and even penicillin during Prohibition and World War II. Because of penicillin is produced by fermentation, distilleries were an ideal choice to produce it in mass quantities. It took a while for bourbon to make a come back, but the market did pick up again in the late 80’s.