Bourbon 101

Whiskey infographic

Whiskey infographic by Sean Seidell Art-Science

With bourbon’s recent surge in popularity, people are also becoming more curious about how it’s made and what makes it different from other whiskeys. As shown in the infographic above, bourbon is a type of whiskey. Whereas whiskeys are produced in many countries (Ireland, Scotland, Canada…), bourbon can only be produced in the United States. This is the result of  a congressional action in 1964 that classified bourbon as a distinctive product unique to the United States. This contrasts with the popular belief that bourbon must be made in Kentucky or even more exclusively, in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

The Federal Government also regulates the attributes used to differentiate distilled spirits. Bourbon has quite a few:

1. In order for a whiskey to be called a bourbon, its grain mixture (a.k.a. mash bill) must be at least 51% corn.

2. After this mixture is fermented, it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof.

3. After distillation, it must be proofed down to no more than 125 proof before it is put in barrels to be aged.

4. It must be aged in brand new, white american oak barrels that have been charred on the inside.

5. After being aged, it cannot be bottled at an alcohol content lower than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).

Barrel aging develops and intensifies the taste and color of the bourbon. Under-aging can lead to harsh and hot flavors, while over-aging can lead the bourbon to be over-oaked. In bourbon country, a barrel of bourbon can be aged for as little as 3 months or as long as 30 years. However, in Buellton, where we age our Breaker Bourbon Whisky, we are able to achieve the same level of aging as a 5 to 6 year aged barrel of bourbon from Kentucky in just 2 to 3 years. This is because the aging process is highly dependent on the rate of aspiration of the barrel–basically, the barrel breathing. In the heat, the pores in the wood of the barrel will expand; the barrel will exhale. This will cause the liquid to pass through the charred layer, which acts as an ion filter, and into the pores of the wood. Here it will pick up the typical delicious flavors associated with bourbon — smoke, oak, vanilla, spice, caramel… yum. In the cold, the pores in the barrel will contract, and the liquid will move into the interior of the barrel. Buellton’s typical daily temperature fluctuations of between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit allow for a higher rate of expansion and contraction (the barrel aspirating), accelerating bourbon aging!

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