Working in the bourbon world, I hear the question a lot: “So, what is bourbon, actually?”
Bourbon can be different things to different people. It is both resolute and ambiguous in its very definition and history. Bourbon is that mystical brown liquid that is fervently sought after, both in this country and in many more around the world. It is euphorically consumed by connoisseurs, as they savor every last drop, intently searching their palate for each subtle nuance. For others, bourbon can be an elusive treasure, much like a rare archaeological find secured safely behind glass, carefully avoiding possible human contamination.
These are just a couple of reasons why I think bourbon can seem hard to define. It is simultaneously a hobby, a luxury, a bartering tool, or even a secondary income.
While being embedded in supposition, myth, and rumor, at its core bourbon is made up of several indisputable facts. It is a spirit native to America. This was established on May 4, 1964, when the United States Congress declared bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States.” Much to the chagrin of many of my fellow Kentuckians, Bourbon can be produced in any one of these United States or its territories. Yes, bourbon can legally be produced in both Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia.
Having said that, over 95% of the world’s supply is made right here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I once heard the legendary Parker Beam quip during an interview, “You can make bourbon outside of Kentucky. But, if you wanna sell it, you damn well better make it here.”
Understandably, with such an impressive amount of production, the impact of bourbon on Kentucky’s economy is equally prodigious. Through the combined cash flow of both tourism and retail, it provides an over eight billion dollar yearly boost to the state’s economy.
Why here? What makes Kentucky so great? I could provide you with a long list! But, for the sake of this piece, I’ll keep it centered around bourbon. *wink* With its vast amounts of limestone water, four true seasons, and fertile soil conducive to growing corn, Kentucky possesses all of the key elements essential for producing an exceptional product. With the exception of Alaska, Kentucky has more miles of running water than any other state. Prior to modern transportation, these navigable water ways were perfect for transporting the whiskey made by early settlers.
Having all of these notable characteristics, Kentucky became synonymous with the word bourbon. In the 1961 film “The Hustler,” Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) places an order for JTS Brown, while competing in a pool game against Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman). Gleason’s character knowingly refers to this Kentucky bourbon as “The Good Stuff.” In addition, one of the most famous post World War II photographs ever taken was published in 1945. In the photo, a Navy service member is shown jubilantly kissing a young woman in Times Square. It also features the Four Roses name high atop a building centered in the background. Both of these legendary products were produced right here in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. As the years went by, the association of the word bourbon with Kentucky became increasingly more embedded into the world of whiskey.
This could not be more evident than when we discuss the age old question, “Is Jack Daniels a bourbon?” There are conflicting and sometimes quite emotional opinions on this subject. It is possible to make a valid argument no matter which side of this discussion you might choose.
According to the North American Trade Agreement, this popular liquid is listed as a “straight bourbon whiskey.” Chris Fletcher, Master Distiller at Jack Daniels, is said to have offered that The Lincoln County Process doesn’t prevent them from labeling the whiskey a bourbon, it simply allows them to label themselves as a Tennessee Whiskey. Michael Veach wrote that the process of filtering the newly made clear spirit through charcoal predates the practice of barrel aging itself. He cites references of this process occurring in Kentucky, Tennessee and even as far away as Canada.
Simply put, Jack Daniels doesn’t want to be referenced as a bourbon. So, I suppose whether your stance is that this legendary product is a bourbon, or if you vociferously declare it not a bourbon… you are correct.
Will Kentucky ever relinquish the title of the Bourbon Capital of the World? In my humble opinion, I don’t think so. If I’m being completely forthcoming and honest, I certainly hope not. However, there has been speculation. In 2019, Esquire magazine published an article listing the 10 distilleries likely to cause the Bourbon Trail to veer outside of Kentucky. Yet, in spite of this measured prediction, the Commonwealth continues to set new bourbon tourism records year after year.
As a federally regulated product, bourbon must also adhere to a strict set of irrefutable requirements. These stipulations came into effect in 1909, under President Taft. Most of these rules can be quickly and concisely recited by most bourbon enthusiasts. There’s a twist, though. Under Taft’s decision, bourbon now requires a mash bill of at least 51% corn. Distillation proof can be no higher than 160. It cannot enter the barrel above 125 proof. It can’t be bottled at less than 80 proof, and that bottle cannot contain anything besides the whiskey and water used to proof it down.
Did you notice one missing? A new charred oak container, maybe? That’s because this regulation didn’t come into effect until years later. In 1938, as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the new charred oak container became a federal requirement for bourbon. It’s believed by many that this was a result of intense lobbying from the Coopers Union and the timber industry, which doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched hypothesis.
So, what is bourbon? It is the stuff of legends, giving us names synonymous with the spirit. We’re talking about individuals like Jimmy Russell, Booker Noe, and Elmer T Lee, among others. It is an economic juggernaut for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s America’s Spirit, as declared by the United States Congress. Bourbon is all of these things. But, more importantly for me, bourbon is a way to bring good friends together. It’s also a way to make new friends through a shared love of the product and the culture that goes along with it.
You want to know what bourbon is?… Bourbon IS simply for all of us to enjoy the way that we enjoy it most.
Yeah… I like that. That sounds about right, to me. ‘Til next time, Cheers y’all!