Bourbon is a style of corn-based, barrel-aged whiskey that originated in the southern United States, most notably in the state of Kentucky. Under U.S. law, the definition of Bourbon whiskey is "whiskey produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51% corn and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers." The mash bill can also include other grains, such as rye, barley, and wheat.
The vast majority of bourbons far exceed this 51% minimum corn content and most are bottled with between 40% and 50% alcohol ABV (80° and 87.5° proof). Although Bourbon is strongly affiliated with Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the United States, as long as producers follow the proprietary recipe and process.
Bourbon can have a vanilla aroma and gentle sweetness, due to its aging in flame-charred, virgin oak barrels. To be labeled “Straight Bourbon,” it must be aged in new, charred American white oak barrels for at least two years and sold unblended or blended only with other Straight Bourbons. No caramel or other coloring is allowed. Bourbon does not require a minimum aging period.
Bourbon traces its origins back to Colonial America in the 18th century. While many of America’s original settlers used rye as the crop of choice for making spirits, the unique fertile soil and spring waters in Kentucky led to corn becoming the base ingredient for Bourbon.
According to legend, the name “Bourbon” derived from the name “Bourbon County” that was printed on the sides of barrels shipped from Kentucky. However, historians have recently debunked this theory, claiming that the true origins of the name “Bourbon” are still unknown. The invention of bourbon is generally attributed to Elijah Craig, a minister, and distiller. And the first person to distill bourbon whiskey is generally considered to be Jacob Spears – however, historians continue to come up with alternate theories of how bourbon became so popular within Kentucky.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, known for highlighting the biggest distillers in the state, now has an offshoot called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, focusing on 14 standout craft distillers. As mid-sized players such as Town Branch, Michter’s and Willett have grown in size, it has also opened the door for a very vibrant micro-distillery scene to emerge. In some cases, these new distillers are making bourbon and whiskey, and in others, they are simply making traditional Kentucky moonshine.