To the dismay of Casper the Friendly Ghost, bourbon was officially crowned America's native spirit in 1964. How you drink it says a lot about your personality (find out here!), but how little you know about it says even more. Here are 14 facts to help level up your bourbon knowledge and make you the most interesting person at the bar, except for the guy who drank a lot more bourbon than you.
1. The name originally derives from the House of Bourbon
They were French royalty who first came to power in the 16th century and eventually ruled over France, Sicily, Spain, Luxembourg, Parma, and Naples, mostly thanks to a trio of dragons and the strong leadership of Khaleesi.
2. It doesn't have to be made in Kentucky
Although 95% comes from the Bluegrass State, Kentuckians don't have an exclusive claim. It can be made in other states, but bourbon does need to be made in the United States, mostly because our colors don't run... into the whiskey.
3. The Rules
By official government mandate, these rules must be thumb-tacked to the corkboard of every distillery: bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, begin barrel-aging at no more than 125 proof, and be bottled between 80 and 160 proof.
4. The Technicalities
Unlike those drinking it and/or Scott Bakula, bourbon doesn't need to be a certain age. But to be called straight bourbon it must have sat for at least two years, and can't have any added flavors or colors. The adulterated but not-yet-adult versions are referred to as blended bourbon.
5. It's nobody's child
Bourbon's origins are heavily disputed. Some say Elijah Craig was the first to use charred oak barrels, others say those people are dirty liars. James C. "Jim" Crow is credited by many with inventing the sour mash process
(using an old yeast as a starter), and also credited by us as having the 5th best/worst well liquor
6. Thomas Jefferson loved the stuff
In the 1780s, TJ offered farmers 60 acres of prime Kentucky real estate to grow "crops of native origin". He called the area Bourbon County in honor of the French contribution to the American Revolutionary War, which was the last time they contributed to any war ever.
7. There's a bar in Austin that washes it with the best brisket on the planet
The mad mixologists at CU29
are known to infuse bourbon with Franklin Barbecue's brisket for over a month
, but stopped just short of naming it briskey.
8. Those barrels better be charred, and only used once
The barrel staves that hold the glorious liquor are toasted to bring caramelized sugars out of the wood, fired to evenly charcoal the interior, and then rung together with metal. Lastly, they're plugged up with a top piece of wood called a bung. Contrary to popular belief, no TP is used in the bunghole. After the barrels have been used once they can no longer be used for bourbon again, and are often recycled to use for aging Scotch.
9. It makes a good medicine
During World War II, many distilleries were converted to produce penicillin, which is also a product of fermentation that will cure what ails you.
10. The government gets good and rich off it
According to USA Today
, Kentucky distillers pay over $14 million in property taxes per year
to store their aging barrels.
11. Forget the Van Winkle -- go with the Weller
Most everyone agrees that Pappy Van Winkle's the best bourbon around, but near impossible to find. Little known fact: W.L. Weller 12yr and Pappy Van Winkle 10yr are both made at Buffalo Trace using the same recipe. So although they're aged slightly differently, a bottle of Weller lets you sip from the same stock for half the price, and infinity times the find-ability.
12. "Bottled in bond" is something you want to look for
To protect distillers (and consumers) from diluted, blended, and boot-legged products, the US government passed the Bottled in Bond Act in 1897
that stated the liquor must be the product of one distiller from one distillery using products from only one distillation period
. The bottles were then to be stored in federal warehouses for four years under strict supervision by extremely trustworthy individuals.
13. Un-aged bourbon is called white dog
Before bourbon is leashed to an oak barrel to age, the fresh-off-the-still version is a harsh, clear grain spirit that bourbon brewers refer to as white dog. Many larger distillers have recently started packaging it for sale, proof that not all dogs go to heaven.
14. Home distillation is illegal, you dirty criminal
It's illegal to make your own hooch in the US, but with a little help from Risky? Whisky you can age whisky at home
while you catch a few Pappy Van Winks. Although it won't technically be bourbon for all sorts of reasons (see #3!), RW has no fear of semantics and asserts that letting their un-aged white dog steep in a glass bottle with charred French oak chips will still result in great-tasting liquor.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food/Drink team who recently purchased a very nice toaster oven and is excited about exploring the world of crispy reheated food. He also enjoys hating mustard. Follow him to pots of gold/Twitter at @Dannosphere.