What happens when you combine corn, limestone, white oak, fire, and time? You get one of the best-loved alcoholic spirits in American history: bourbon. Since June14 is National Bourbon Day, a little history is in order. In the mid-1700s, Scotch-Irish settlers in the area that is now Virginia and Kentucky began distilling corn — the only grain native to the area, but one which made for excellent whiskey owing to its sweetness. Another geographical factor was also beneficial to the birth of bourbon.The Limestone Shelf region, where all major American whiskeys are still made today, imbued the local water with calcium while filtering out iron. Turns out that high-calcium, low-iron water is excellent when it comes to makin’ moonshine. We have a clergyman-cum-distiller named Elijah Craig to thank for the third major piece of the bourbon puzzle. In the late 1780s, Craig was using old fish barrels to store his spirits.Not surprisingly, fish-flavored wood did not enhance the whiskey’s taste, so Craig started purifying the white-oak barrels by charring the inside. Then he stamped the barrels with their county of origin (Bourbon County, in his case) and sent them on a 90-day trip down to New Orleans. The charred oak and three-month travel time combined to mellow the whiskey and give it a smooth, smoky, oaky flavor. WhenNew Orleanians requested more of “that whiskey from Bourbon,” the name and the spirit were born.
Why We Love National Bourbon Day
A. It goes with everything
Bourbon is fairly versatile liquor, so whether you’ve just picked up a bottle or you’re bellied up to the brass rail, you’ve got options. Drink it neat or on the rocks; go understated with a twist of lemon; substitute it for most whiskey-based drinks — think Manhattans and Sazeracs; mix it with ginger ale. And although we associate Juleps with the Kentucky Derby, there’s nothing wrong with a little muddled mint any day of the year.
B. It’s authentically American
The United States produces award-winning wines, exceptional craft beer, an increasingly high-quality array of ciders, some excellent vodkas — and an awful lot of overly sweet, outlandishly flavored, ridiculously named swill. But all of those (yep, even the bargain-brand root beer schnapps) can trace their origins back to other cultures or countries. Only bourbon is indigenous not just to America but, specifically, to the American South, with some 95% of it hailing from Kentucky.
C. Bourbon is a decidedly grown-up drink
We laugh at memes that celebrate the hardships of adulting, but there’s something to be said for drinking like a real man — or woman. Most drinkers start out with cheap beer, wine coolers, or vodka mixed with whatever’s in the fridge, and there’s nothing wrong with drinking what’s available when you’re younger. Yet there comes a time to put away the red Solo cups and develop a taste for more sophisticated spirits. Enter bourbon, which is often more accessible than, say, peaty single-malt Scotches or high-end tequilas.
How to Celebrate National Bourbon Day
1. Mix up a bourbon-based cocktail
Sure, there are times when a cocktail made from hibiscus bitters and basil-strawberry shrub and Peychaud and ancho chili dust is exactly what you’re craving after a hard day at the office. For every other time, a classic — say, an Old Fashioned — will do the trick. Perhaps the oldest and best-known mixed drink of all, Old Fashioneds are dead-simple to make. Place one sugar cube (or one teaspoon superfine sugar) in your highball glass and add several dashes of Angostura bitters and a few drops water. Add two ounces of your favorite bourbon and several ice cubes; stir quickly to chill the drink. Feeling super-fancy? Garnish with a maraschino cherry or an orange slice.
2. Host a bourbon-tasting party
If you’re a purist, you might balk at even these scant additions, in which case a bourbon tasting is more your style. Invite a few friends over, asking each to bring a different bottle (or have everyone chip in beforehand, so you can control the selection). Our tip: add a drop or two of distilled water to each pour; this will help open up the aromas. Then engage your senses of smell and taste to detect flavors and characteristics in the bourbon. Is it woodsy or smoky, or more fruity and floral? Are there sweet or buttery notes? Nutty, earthy, and herbal are also common descriptors of bourbons. Remember, the goal here is to compare and contrast, just like in those high-school essays, with the intent of discovering what you enjoy most about this spirit.
3. Watch the masters at work from the comfort of your armchair
Did you know that there’s a full-length documentary dedicated solely to bourbon? It’s called Neat: The Bourbon Film and while there’s no release date yet, it looks to be well worth the wait, judging from the trailer and social media teasers. In the meantime, check out public television station KET’s hour-long “Kentucky Bourbon Tales,” featuring interviews with master distillers.