(n.) This American subset of whiskey is made from distilling a fermented mash of at least 51-percent corn and aging the liquor in new charred white oak barrels. Though some are made from 100-percent corn, most producers use around 70 percent, with the remainder of the grain mix filled out by malted barley, rye or wheat for different flavor profiles. By law, the liquor must be distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in barrel at no more than 125 proof, with no additives or flavorings other than water allowed.
Bourbon can legally be made in any state in the United States, but its spiritual home rests in Kentucky, its birthplace. The creation story goes that settlers in the 1700s found it easier to transport liquor than grain over the hilly terrain to sell in markets, and thus a regional whiskey was born. The whiskey from Bourbon County in particular developed a reputation for its distinctive style. Production for the big commercial houses today is centered in the area between Lexington and Louisville, KY, which some of the biggest brands—including Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill—call home.
Clear when distilled, the liquor gains its brown color and many flavor characteristics from time spent aging in barrels made from charred new oak. Producers are allowed to add the word “straight” to their labels if the bourbon is aged for more than two years. At large houses, the barrels are stored in multi-story buildings (rick houses) where temperature and humidity differ on each level, influencing the aging process. The master distiller has the option to blend casks from the levels to achieve different styles. Small-batch bourbon, a marketing term which has no legal definition, can refer to the distiller selecting choice barrels for a select blend or bourbon made in small quantities.
While bourbon had largely fallen out of favor in the United States after Prohibition, the spirit has recently seen a large comeback, especially in the super-premium category, spurred by the micro-distillery boom and the cocktail craze. A few notable producers in the premium category include Pappy Van Winkle, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, Black Maple Hill and Woodford Reserve.