I was recently at a corporate event for work. After nine hours on my feet, my “tires” were screaming for a little relief. As I walked to the pop-up bar station, I asked the server, “Do you have any bourbon?” He quickly responded, “We have Jack Daniels. Do you want that?” I ended up settling for a mass-market Irish whiskey.
But I wondered, if he didn’t know – how many out there truly know the difference? What separates bourbon from all of the other spirits? When I pose that question even to those that are connoisseurs of that American spirit, I hear conflicting descriptors. “It has to be made in Kentucky“. “It has to be charcoal filtered.” Let’s clear up some of the confusion:
What makes bourbon, well, bourbon?
For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, it must pass these important tests:
- Bourbon is a uniquely American spirit. Legally, it must be made in the United States. Contrary to the widely held belief, it can be made outside of Kentucky (though 95% of the world’s bourbon comes from the Commonwealth).
- It must be made of from at least 51% corn. The grains that are ground and fermented are called the “mash bill.” The remainder of the mash bill is typically filled in with malted barley, rye or wheat. Beyond the US rule, the 51% corn requirement oftentimes separates many of the traditional Irish whiskeys and scotches from being classified as a bourbon.
- The mash must be distilled to 160 proof (80% alcohol) or less, and when finished aging, go into the bottle at no less than 80 proof.
- It must be aged in a new, charred oak barrel. Note that here, too, many scotches and whiskeys would fail a bourbon-test, as they utilize a used bourbon barrel for the aging. Traditionally, the white oak tree is used to make the barrels, but with the current bourbon boom and the creativity of the distillers, we’re seeing more and more oak varieties.
- Lastly, the distillate (aka white dog) that goes into that oak barrel must be no higher than 125 proof, and contain no other additives. You’ll find some other whiskeys add colors and flavorings.
All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons
You may have heard the phrase, and if you have, it’s exactly correct. There are many whiskeys in the world, including American whiskey, Irish whiskey and scotch. But many fail on the reasons listed above – either by location (United States), the mash bill, the newly charred oak barrel, or the additives.
I thought it could only be made in Kentucky?
Technically, if you followed the rules above and made it in your kitchen (or bathtub), legally, you’d have bourbon. And yes, while 95% of the world’s bourbon originates from Kentucky, craft distilleries are popping up across the country. For the record, there are 7.5 million (yes, million) barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky. Based on the most recent census, Kentucky has 4.3 million residents, so that’s just under 2 barrels for each man, woman, and child. And if you’re counting, that equates to nearly 93 gallons for each resident (of course, there is the angel’s share – more on that another time).
If you’re wondering “why Kentucky“, it is the limestone filtered water. To make a quality bourbon, you want calcium-filtered water that’s iron-free (something that’s hard to come by in Central Illinois!). The high calcium in the Kentucky aquifer – especially in the areas between Louisville and Lexington – are why many distilleries are found in that region. Calcium also contributes to strong, hardy bones – another reason why you see so many horse farms in the area. Bourbon. Horses. Could it get much better?
You may have heard the phrase “all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon”. And if you have, it is exactly right. While whiskeys are found across the country and around the world, not every one falls into that quintessential American spirit called bourbon.
What about Jack Daniels – is that bourbon?
Jack Daniels calls itself a “Tennessee Whiskey”. If you have trouble sleeping at night and need a little help, grab a copy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It recognizes both bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey as uniquely American products.
Which brings us back to my server’s comment – do you want some Jack? On the surface, even down to the mash bill, Jack Daniels closely resembles bourbon. At 80% corn, 12% malted barley, and 8% rye, Jack Daniels closely resembles many American bourbon recipes … with one distinct difference …
While a number of bourbons charcoal filter their bourbons after aging, Jack Daniels passes its distillate through maple charcoal, in what it calls, the Lincoln County process, before it goes into the barrel. Flavors added. Null and void on the bourbon issue.
And, while it puts out a fine product, Jack Daniels fails the quintessential bourbon test. Ironically, though, Jack Daniels parent – the Brown-Forman Group – puts out a number of very fine bourbons, including the Woodford Reserve and Old Forester Brands. Jack Daniels remains the #1 spirits brand, comprises the lion’s share of BF’s revenue, and is a true, global brand.
Server: Do want the Jack? It’s close to bourbon.
Me: Well, actually, it’s not. I’ll take the Irish Whiskey. On the rocks.