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12 things you should know about bourbon

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You probably know a few things about bourbon by now. That it’s whiskey. That there’s corn involved. Right? Or something? Clearly there’s room to learn. That’s why we’ve teamed up with some guys who’ve been making history in the whiskey game for more than 200 years, Jim Beam® Bourbon, to create an essential guide to America’s Native Spirit.
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Courtesy of Jim Beam

It’s Bread
Seriously, it’s just grain, water, and yeast – the same trio that make up a loaf. To be called “bourbon”, the initial distillate must come from at least 51% corn, be cut with water from a ceiling of 190-proof to at least 125-proof, and stored in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. There is no age requirement unless it’s “straight bourbon” -- in which case we’re talking a minimum of two years, with no added coloring or flavor.
 
It’s Also Sour Beer
As home brewers probably noticed, beer is just a whiskey precursor. The only difference? Heat. Beginning as "Distiller's Beer", the future whiskey is  "distilled", meaning vaporizing and condensing multiple times, separating out the water and turning what was a very sour beer into something even more magical: whiskey.

­The Barrels Are Filters
You probably know that whiskey gets its distinct color and flavor from the barrel. But that’s also where it’s naturally filtered. As weather gets warmer, the expanding whiskey seeps into the wood. As it cools, the whiskey contracts out, taking with it tannins, sugar, and other flavors -- but leaving behind congeners, i.e. bad stuff that’s made in the fermentation process. Ever see the inside of a pool filter? Same principle (minus the hilarious “-ool” signs), that charred carbon is incredibly porous and traps impurities. Continue Reading

Those Barrels Also Take A Cut
That carbon also traps some of the good stuff. Called the “Angel’s Share” (probably coined in Cognac, France), about 4% of the barreled liquid is lost to evaporation or stuck in the wood every year. There is, however, a secret process to steal that booze back in a pretty devilish way. Jim Beam’s 7th generation master distiller, Fred Noe, claims the Angel’s Share increased the minute his dad, Booker Noe, passed away.

Courtesy of Jim Beam

Whiskey Has Terroir Too
“Terroir” is the impact local water, soil, and climate has on taste. Since most distillers source their rye, wheat, or corn from third parties, it’s the water that’s key -- there are profound differences between whiskeys made with the exact same still and ingredients but different H20. A chunk of KY sits above a limestone deposit that acts as a natural filter and contributes to American bourbon’s signature flavor… which is probably why 98% of distilleries are still located in the Bluegrass State.
 
A Yeast Strain Helps Keep It Consistent
Just like bakers use the same yeast culture for decades, so do distilleries -- Jim Beam has been using the same strain for more than 75 years, preserving it via the “set back”, or the 25 percent of each new mash reserved for the next batch of spirit. Jim Beam’s “mash bill” -- the mix of grains that’s fermented, not a congressional bid to honor the TV show -- has stayed the same since 1795.

Courtesy of Jim Beam

So Does Testing It Almost Every Day
For a product that requires years to make through a complex and tough-to-control organic process, consistency is incredibly difficult. Incessant tests are saved in massive archives, allowing distillers to compare their product at almost any stage to whiskey made decades ago. Whiskey, unlike wine and people, doesn’t really change over the years because the high alcohol content destroys the bacteria that would turn lesser ABV products into vinegar.
 
Nobody Can Be Credited With Its Invention
After the Revolutionary War, a huge swath of Kentucky was named after the French royal family, The Bourbons. This chunk slowly split into 30 modern, smaller counties, but was still known as “Old Bourbon”. As whiskey became one of Kentucky’s biggest exports, the port where the barrels were shipped didn’t feel like stamping individual counties on every barrel. “Old Bourbon Whiskey” was the compromise.
 
Enthusiastic customers assumed “old” referred to aging, not origin, and that oldness was solely responsible for the novel taste -- but what they really loved was the corn, as most domestic whiskey had been made from rye. Other Southern distillers realized their booze was also made from corn and co-opted the Bourbon name in one of history’s all-time slickest marketing moves.
 
The Many That Did Were Keystoners
Bourbon was the legacy of the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1791, the American congress tried to recoup war costs by taxing distilled spirits. Farmers in PA rioted and troops were dispatched. In the aftermath (not surprisingly, the soldiers won), Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson offered displaced farmers 60 acres in what would become Kentucky.
 
It’s Now Protected Under Lock And… Article
Article 313 of NAFTA: “Canada and Mexico shall not permit the sale of any product as Bourbon Whiskey or Tennessee Whiskey, unless it has been manufactured in the United States in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States”. The US has a similar agreement with the EU, which only Italy and Greece oppose… because that treaty doesn’t protect grappa or ouzo. We win.
 

Courtesy of Jim Beam

The Beam Family Ran 10% Of All Whiskey Distilleries Opened After Prohibition
The fecund family that started with Jim Beam (née Jacob Boehm) in the 18th century has become synonymous with bourbon, with generation after generation serving as master distillers or employees at almost every distillery in Kentucky. Other families have a storied history on the business end of things, but the Beams’ family tree has famously remained hands-on with the whiskey itself. Booker Noe (6th generation, and the handsome statue above) served as Beam Master Distiller for 32 years. He had a habit of bringing home straight-from-the-barrel, unfiltered, 126-proof whiskey that had been aged 6-8 years. After he passed, his predilection was bottled as one of Jim Beam’s best small batches, Booker’s® Bourbon.
 
“Small Batch” Isn’t Just Marketing
Coined by the Jim Beam folks, “Small Batch” bourbons don’t have a government-protected definition, but they are bottled from specially selected individual barrels. Jim Beam® Single Barrel and Jim Beam® Signature Craft are two varieties in which master distillers carefully select the liquid that will be included, ensuring the highest quality.

Jim Beam® and Booker’s® are registered trademarks of Jim Beam Brands Co. and are used with permission.