Whiskey Nips: Bourbon 101
Bourbon popularity is high, and consumers are more knowledgeable than ever, yet there are still plenty of blogs and websites that get common facts about bourbon wrong. I’m here to set the record straight. Let’s start off with the mashbill, shall we? Like all other whiskies, bourbon is made from grains that have been milled down and fermented, then distilled into alcohol. Bourbon is made up of at least 51% corn, any less, and it can no longer be called a bourbon. The other 49% can be whatever grain you’d like. It also has to be made in America. There’s a common misconception that it must be made in Kentucky, but that is not true. And if you follow the rules of bourbon, but let’s say you made it in Canada, you cannot call it a bourbon due to trade agreements.
When it comes to distilling the grains into alcohol, there is a maximum proof level of 160. Vodka has no flavor, and that’s because it is distilled to 190 proof and removed all the flavor that came from the grains. Bourbon does not have to be distilled all the way up to 160 proof, but whatever proof it is distilled it to, it has to be at 125 proof or lower when going into the barrel. This means adding water if that distillate came off the still above 125 proof. Water is the only you can add, nothing else is allowed. This limit used to be 110 proof until 1962. By raising it to 125, distillers were able to have more alcohol in the same amount of barrels and storage space.
About those barrels… Technically, they do not have to be barrels that you age the bourbon in. Federal law only dictates that bourbon is aged in a new charred oak container, not barrel. And these containers can be any type of oak, not just American. American oak barrels are common practice, not law, because of the good seal that they make, and because they can be maneuvered around by hand. There is no law about the barrel head, so some distillers don’t do anything to it, while others may decide to toast or char it, depending on their preference.
When the distiller decides that the bourbon is ready and is done aging, whether it is 30 seconds or 30 years because there is no law on age for bourbon, it is time for bottling. Warehouse conditions will take its’ toll on the bourbon and the barrel. Some of it will evaporate, or leak out, and the bourbon that comes out of the barrel won’t be the same proof as it was when it went in. Some of the time it gains proof, other times it loses proof, but when it is time to go into the bottle, it must be at least 80 proof. Again, nothing can be added at this stage besides water, otherwise it will not be bourbon.
Below you will find the government laws on the “standard of identity” for labeling and advertising distilled spirits. I suggest checking it out and seeing if you learn anything new from it.
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