bourbon primer, national bourbon day

It’s #NationalBourbonDay: Enjoy An Easy-To-Swallow Bourbon Primer

Scotch with ice. Photo: Tetra Images (Getty)

In the simplest terms, bourbon is America’s native spirit. Scotland has Scotch, France has Cognac, and the US has bourbon. Bourbon is as American as apple pie, baseball, and Nick Offerman. “Bourbon and America have gone hand-in-hand virtually since our country was founded, though the exact timeline of bourbon as we know it is a little murky,” says Rob Samuels, 8th generation whisky maker and COO at Maker’s Mark.

Photo: Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank (Getty)

Most experts will tell you that whiskey (or whisky) making in the US dates back to the 1780s. “Whisky started being sold more widely along the Mississippi river following the Louisiana purchase in 1803,” says Samuels.

Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century, but it didn’t get its official name until the 1800s. “The use of the term ‘bourbon’ for whiskey has been traced to the 1820s, and the term began to be used consistently in Kentucky in the 1870s,” says Adam Kost, VP of Marketing for Milestone Brands (makers of American Born Whiskey). While bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with the south.

What are the bourbon laws?

There are laws that dictate what makes bourbon, bourbon. “To be considered a true bourbon–America’s Native spirit–the American-made straight whisky must be comprised of at least 51 percent corn, produced in the US and aged in new charred oak barrels,” says Samuels. ”There are several additional rules but those are your ABCs of bourbon (A: made in America, B: new oak Barrels, C:  51% Corn).”

Where does bourbon get its brown hue?

You can’t legally add any artificial color into bourbon to make it darker than it really is. “With bourbon, all the color has to come from the wood of the barrel,” says Samuels. “Many people don’t realize this, but bourbon is actually clear when it comes off the still.” Of course, you’re already well aware of the difference a whiskey’s barrel makes.

How is bourbon different from other whiskey styles?

There are other practices that make bourbon uniquely American. “Bourbon must be made in the United States and the use of new charred oak barrels,” says Mike Raymond, bartender at Reserve 101 and The Cottonmouth Club in Houston.

Due to the high corn content, bourbon tends to be sweeter than other types of whisky, particularly rye whisky which generally has a spicier quality. “Bourbon can be an incredibly diverse category and I think that’s part of what makes it special,” says Samuels. Another difference can be found in the sweet, mellow flavor. “Bourbon is also very different from Scotch whisky, which often has a smoky or earthy quality from the peat used during the malting process,” says Samuels. “There will of course always be exceptions, but smokiness is not usually a quality you’ll find in bourbon.”

bourbon primer, national bourbon day
Woman with beverage. Photo: Jupiterimages (Getty)

Does bourbon need to be made in Kentucky?

This is a common misconception – bourbon doesn’t need to be produced in Kentucky, it can come from anywhere in America. You might be surprised to know that bourbon is made in New York, Alabama, and even Texas. “While there are some incredible bourbons being produced across the country, we like to think that Kentuckians do it best,” says Samuels.

“Not all bourbon is made in Kentucky, though roughly 90% of bourbon is,” says Raymond. “One I like that’s made outside Kentucky is Garrison Brothers. It’s the first whiskey to be made legally in the state of Texas and is the best example of Texas made bourbon.”

What is the best way to drink it?

The bourbon process is long and requires a lot of patience. You should treat the spirit itself with the same reverence. It should be sipped and savored. But, there’s no rules about how to drink it. “When it comes to drinking, my approach is pretty libertarian,” says Raymond. “That is to say, drink what you like however you damn well please. No, really, however you enjoy your bourbon is how you should drink it.”

“If you have a preferred way to drink it, well then go ahead,” says Samuels. “I don’t think there’s one best way to drink it.”

Why is it a great summer spirit?

Many people see bourbon as a colder weather drink, but it can easily be enjoyed in the summer. “There’s long been this myth that brown spirits can’t be enjoyed in warm weather,” says Raymond. “And certainly I don’t begrudge those who profit from that myth for perpetuating it, but try a bourbon and iced tea on a hot summer day and I defy anyone to tell me it isn’t refreshing.”

There are few things better paired with a bonfire than a nice glass of bourbon. “Of course, if you’d prefer to mix your bourbon, there are plenty of great bourbon cocktails that happen to be quite refreshing, such as the sweet mint julep or a bright and citrusy bourbon smash,” says Samuels. “A little fresh mint can go a long way to creating the perfect summertime drink.”

bourbon primer, national bourbon day
(photo by Getty Images)

What are some famous bourbon cocktails?

Classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned – bourbon, sugar, bitters, and an orange twist – or a Manhattan, made with Bourbon, vermouth, and bitters are incredibly popular. “They’re tasty and simple to make,” says Samuels. “At Maker’s Mark, we’re also fond of the Mint Julep year-round, a simple combination of bourbon, simple syrup, and fresh mint mixed together and served over crushed ice.” Others include the Boulevardier and whiskey sour.

Why is bourbon so popular?

Bourbon is America’s only true spirit and has been riding a wave of popularity in the last few years. “We believe the popularity has been driven by a combination of a resurgence of cocktail culture and the consumer’s desire to drink more authentic products made locally and in the USA,” says Kost.

In the last few years, bartenders have been embracing bourbon during the craft cocktail movement. It helps that consumer’s palates are evolving, allowing them to be more exploratory and appreciative of well made bourbon.

“Bartenders have gotten more and more creative with how they showcase the spirit – incorporating off-beat ingredients to compliment it and generally just opening people’s eyes up to different ways to use bourbon in their drinks,” says Samuels. “Someone who used to be a vodka drinker, simply because all they knew of bourbon was a bourbon and coke, has now been introduced to countless other bourbon drinks, and has probably found a few that they’ve come to like.”

America has become a marketplace where drinkers are more and more willing to try new things. “I think that’s due in part to the rise of foodie culture in the country – everywhere you look, on TV, social media, and even here in our own on-campus restaurant, Star Hill Provisions, chefs and bartenders are doing exciting new things with food and drink that people can’t wait to try,” says Samuels. “With each bourbon producer using his or her own unique recipe, each bourbon tastes different, and people appreciate the excitement that comes with the variety available in the bourbon category.”