Bourbon has come a long way.
By Chris Strouth
Baseball. Jazz. Comic books. Bourbon. While this is a recipe for the most awesome day ever, it’s also a list of distinctly American art forms. These things are unique to the United States. We made them, defined them, and then exported them to every other country. Bourbon is a magical elixir—a kissing cousin of whiskey, which along with its southern brother rum, gave us commerce and trade, both free and slave.
Much how the porn has pushed the world of technology, liquor has been the gateway drug to capitalism for a millennium. While whiskey has been around in its primordial form since the 12th century, bourbon is a relative newcomer, emerging in the late 1800s. Whiskey literally translates to “water of life.” It can trace its origins back to Greece in the third century.
Bourbon, on the other hand, might be named for the Kentucky county where several of the earlier distilleries were located, or from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or Bourbon County in Virginia. No one is really sure who came up with the idea. A Baptist minister? A distiller? I’d like to think this is because they had drunk so much of the product, they all forgot. How good can straight whiskey be if they can trace it back 17 centuries, but bourbon isn’t even 200 years old and no one remembers anything. The buzz must have been that good.
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But before we get too caught up in the history of bourbon, what the hell is the difference between bourbon and whiskey? The answer is as simple as it is complicated. All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash, with different grains used for different forms, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn. Whiskey is typically aged in charred white oak barrels.
Bourbon, on the other hand, is made only from corn mash that is at least 51% corn. Whiskey can be made anywhere. Bourbon can only be made in the United States. That’s really the major difference. It’s all about the details. Fifty-one percent corn sour mash, it’s bourbon. Eighty percent or higher, it’s corn whiskey. Unaged, it’s what the Dukes of Hazzard called moonshine. Then there is rye, made from a mash that is 51% rye. Rye and corn bear no resemblance to each other in their raw form, but the end result is similar to the difference between a loaf of rye bread versus pumpernickel.
As if this wasn’t confusing enough, enter Jack Daniels. It’s the number-one selling American whiskey in the world. To be specific, it’s a “Tennessee whiskey,” meaning it follows the same process as other whiskey, with the extra step of being filtered through sugar maple charcoal in large wooden vats. It’s a pretty minor distinction, so much so that the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) defines Tennessee whiskey as a Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It all comes down to marketing.
Jack Daniels and I have a special relationship. It’s less torrid than the kind of bromance one finds in a Judd Apatow film and not as zany as Hope and Crosby in some sort of “Road” picture. Think Ocean’s 11, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin—serious enough to go through hell together but not needing to have a long, moody conversation about it. It also might be one of the longest relationships in my life. We started seeing each other in high school and went steady in college. Sure, I had dalliances with vodka and rum in the 90s, but hey, who didn’t indulge in the occasional martini or Mai Tai?
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