Whiskey with an E
While the Scots spell it whisky, Americans have adopted the Irish spelling. But the extra letter isn’t the only difference. Call it bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey or rye, America’s native spirit has its own claims to fame.
Scotch is made from barley. But bourbon and Tennessee whiskey must, by law, be made from at least 51 per cent corn. The rest of what’s called the “mash bill” is a mix of rye, barley and wheat. Rye whiskey, unsurprisingly, is made with at least 51 per cent rye, plus corn and barley.
The French Connection
Bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County in Kentucky. Which is, in turn, named after the family that ruled France from 1589 until 1792. That’s because the French once laid claim to a whole swathe of what is now the USA, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.
They sold the land to the United States in 1803 for $15 million.
Great Barrels of Fire
The standards for bourbon require that it’s aged in new, charred oak barrels. Yes, they actually set the inside of the barrels on fire before using them.
The char allows the flavours of the wood – notes of vanilla, oak, caramel and spice – to be absorbed by the liquor. To be defined as “straight bourbon” it has to be aged for at least two years, and if it has been in the barrel for less than four years it must have an age statement on the label.
Two Centuries of History
No-one really knows who invented bourbon, but the first commercial distillery in Kentucky opened in 1783, while the first advertisement for bourbon was printed in a Paris, Kentucky, newspaper in 1821. It was originally labelled Bourbon County Whiskey or Old Bourbon County Whiskey, with the official label of just bourbon being officially adopted in 1840.
Jim or Jack?
Jim Beam is probably the best-known bourbon. But another well-known brand, Jack Daniel’s, isn’t bourbon at all. It’s Tennessee whiskey. What’s the difference? Tennessee Whisky must be filtered through charcoal, in what’s known as the Lincoln County Process. Oh, and it has to be made in Tennessee. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, but around 95 per cent of it comes from Kentucky.
Some Like It Hot
It’s winter after all. So why not make a hot toddy by adding honey, a good slug of bourbon, a little lemon juice and a lemon slice to a cup of black tea? Fancy a cocktail? Classics include the Mint Julep, the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan (although the Manhattan should properly be made with rye whiskey). Or you could, like most of us, just keep it simple with a Bourbon and Coke.