February 16, 2009

The Laws of Bourbon

No bourbon blog would be complete without a discussion of what actually makes whiskey a "bourbon." So, what is bourbon? Federal law will tell you.

To legally be a bourbon, at least 51% of the grain used to make it must be corn. No less. Further, the whiskey cannot be distilled at a proof higher than 160, and when put into the barrels for aging, it cannot be higher than 125 proof. The aging must take place in fire-charred oak barrels that have not yet held any spririts. If the whiskey is distilled and aged in this way, it can be called straight bourbon. Finally, nothing can be added during the bottling other than water, making bourbon a very "natural" drink.

This all seems very technical. However, within these rules, there is still a lot of room for creativity and individuality. How else could we have such a variety of spririts that qualify as bourbon? Some of this creativity is found with the amount of corn used - 51% is only the minimum, and several distillers use much more than that. Also, the level of char in the aging barrels will influence the character of the bourbon, as will the other grains used in addition to the corn such as rye or wheat. And, of course, the years spent in the barrels will have a direct impact on the taste, color, and subtleties of a bourbon whiskey.

In addition to straight bourbon, we have "small-batch" bourbon, blended bourbons, and single barrel bourbons. Small batch bourbons, such as Knob Creek and Baker's, are bourbons that are bottled from a blend of a select handful of barrels. Such bourbons are usually aged between 6 and 9 years, and have top-shelf qualities due to the careful decisions that go into the selection of the batch of barrels used in the bottlings. Only the choicest barrels or bourbon are used.

Single-barrel bourbons are, well, bourbons bottled from a single barrel. Each single barrel bourbon is bottled without be blended with the bourbon from seperate barrels. Single barrel bourbons may have slight taste changes from barrel to barrel.

Blended bourbons are bourbons that are bottled from the blend of several (like hundreds of) different barrels - many more barrels that used in small batch production. Blends allow for control over taste and other characterisitcs so there is continuity between a bottle today and one sold 10 years from now.

Well, there you are. As for me, I have the day off and it's cold and rainy outside - the perfect opportunity to pour myself a glass of something to warm me up.

9 comments:

  1. Any research about whether putting the alcohol in charred barrels leads to increased cancer risk by the person drinking the bourbon? I always heard eating burnt meat from a BBQ does that.

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  2. Well there is some medical discussion/evidence that when certain meats like chicken and pork are grilled, chemicals known as "heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons" are formed. These chemicals may have some link to cancer. However, no such chemicals are released during the charring of the oak barrels in which bourbon is aged. I haven't seen any research that indicates charred oak may lead to cancer. I certainly hope it doesn't.

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  3. no b/c bourbon was use as a menicipal purpose during provision

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  4. bourbon probably is a better solvent for PAH's than wine
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18001029
    ...
    The results clearly showed that the heating processes associated with barrel production actually resulted in the formation of various molecules in the PAH family. However, only a minority of the target PAH presented high toxicity, particularly carcinogenic potential. Because of the specific toasting process used, benzo[a]pyrene, the best-known, and one of the most dangerous, contaminants, was not significantly present in toasted barrel wood. In view of the PAH concentrations in wood and the low solubility of these compounds, their extraction in wine is apparently relatively slow and limited. Finally, comparing the overall PAH concentrations, and particularly those of the most toxic compounds, with estimated absorption from food or the environment, we found it was obvious that the contribution of toasted barrels to the total amount was extremely low and should not, therefore, be considered a major health concern.

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  5. You missed a few things, Straight Bourbon must be ages at least 2 years and if its aged less than 4 years it must state its age on the bottle. If its a blended bourbon and is aged less than 4 years, it must state the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

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  6. Charring wood creates formaldehyde a known carcinogen, and hundreds of other chemicals. Burning anything made of organic material is bad enough, consuming it is insane.

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  7. Your link to Federal Law is broken -- which is a shame as most people don't bother to point in that direction, they just state the fact that.

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