The most alcoholic patriotic holiday has arrived, and bourbon distilleries have a good deal to celebrate this Friday, June 14th. In recent years, the market for bourbon has surged, and the emergence of single-barrel and small batch bourbon isn't the only reason for its jump in popularity. Pop culture has also played its part, with the old-fashioned liquor-swilling appeal of Mad Men leading the way.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey, though not all whiskey can be called bourbon. To meet the criteria, the whiskey must be made in America and aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels. The charred oak flavors the whiskey with caramelized sugars, and gives it an amber color that develops during the aging process. Additionally, bourbon must be made from a mash of fermented grains that includes at least 51 percent corn. The other grains in the mash are any combination of rye, wheat, and barley malt—the proportions can be adjusted to play with the bourbon’s flavor.
More than any other spirit, bourbon is an all-American drink. Congress itself staked national claim to bourbon in 1964 as a “distinctive product of the United States.”
Though there are no restrictions on the particular state, bourbon has strong roots in the South. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bourbon that wasn’t made in Kentucky; the drink’s birthplace still produces about 95 percent of bourbon on the market today. Kentucky's natural resources are a perfect fit: the Limestone Shelf provides a water source low in iron and high in calcium, which is key to the distillation process.
How bourbon emerged as a drink separate from whiskey is unclear. Its name is a reference to Old Bourbon County, which itself was named after a French royal family. Established in 1785, the county was comprised of parts of modern-day Kentucky and Virginia. It also included the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, both of which were commonly used to transport barrels of bourbon.
Myth has it that the Baptist Reverend Elijah Craig, both a minister and a distiller, charred oak barrels (perhaps to clean them) and used them to transport whiskey down the river to New Orleans. The whiskey that came out from the barrels was markedly different from the whiskey that went into them, and soon enough, people were clamoring for more of the whiskey from Old Bourbon County. The story may or may not be totally accurate, but it did give Reverend Craig the memorable nickname “The Father of Bourbon.”
In any case, it wasn’t long before distillers began to market the new American liquor. William Samuels was the first to begin distributing bourbon commercially in 1783, and Evan Williams opened the first commercial distillery in the same year. Evan Williams' distillery still exists today under his name; Samuels’ descendants are the owners of Maker’s Mark.
Bourbon-based cocktails include the classic Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Boulevardier, and mint julep, though purists will argue that bourbon shouldn't be mixed. Choosing sides in that debate may require quite a bit of field research, but that's what National Bourbon Day is for.