Bourbon is Ours

By John Vogel

As a melting pot, America is notorious for taking the world’s ideas and making them better. Whether it be fully automatic weapons or fried chicken, we tend to improve just about anything. 

Same goes for whiskey. 

For the most part, whiskey is a grain spirit that is aged in barrels until it turns brown, it is then bottled, poured and consumed. Repeat as needed. 

Order whisky in Scotland, and you’ll most likely get something that resembles a tire fire but in liquid form. We call it Scotch, they call it whisky. Hipsters love to talk about single malt Hockny-Ardbore-Shire and how it was $200 and so smooth, but in reality, they would rather tell you about it than actually drink it. 

Go to Ireland and you’ll get a similar experience, but instead of pallet wood camp fire tasting notes, you get notes of smog layered on top of tree bark. Sure, your grandma drank Bushmills ’til the day she died, but she was from a time when water wasn’t always safe to drink so she chose the more sterile and more fun option. 

Now enter the American contribution: bourbon, but bourbon is not just a fun denomination of whiskey; it is its own religion. 

During the 18th Century, The Colonies opened their arms to any and all citizens of Scotland and Ireland looking to head their way. They brought with them the traditions of distillation and barrel-aging, which is a pretty decent argument for lax immigration policy. They took to the hills and hollers of the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky and began picking up where they left off in the Highlands and Lowlands of Ireland and Scotland. They found that while barley would grow in the New World, rye and corn did better. Being skilled in the closest thing to alchemy we will ever have, rye whiskey was being produced and stored in charred oak barrels. The trend stuck and soon America had its own style of whiskey. 

Eventually corn overtook rye, and in due time corn-based barrel-aged whiskey became the de facto American style. The origin of the name, bourbon, is a little fuzzier to pin down. Folks from Bourbon County, Kentucky to Bourbon Street in New Orleans have claimed ownership of the name, but after a few sips of the subject, people tend to not care where it came from, just that it’s good and probably good for you. 

In 1964, the federal government actually did something worthwhile and declared bourbon to be a distinctly American creation and that it would be protected as such. The grain bill needs to be 51% corn, be stored in a newly charred oak barrel, aged for at least 3 months, all information as to age must be posted on the label and of course, the cherry on top is it has to be made in America. Kentucky out- produces the rest of the country, supplying 95% of the world’s bourbon and for good reason. 

Now before you go traipsing off to the liquor store, consider my advice. There are two classes of bourbon in my opinion, working bourbon and sippin’ bourbon. Working bourbon is cheap, easily accessible and ok to make into a cocktail if you are into that sort of thing. Wild Turkey reigns supreme in this category, but Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark are just fine. You may drop $30 or less for a bottle and enjoy it all week long. Sippin’ bourbon though, like guns, cars or watches, can get expensive and will entice you with never-ending niches to explore. Bottles ranging from seasonal drops to once in a lifetime offerings will hit shelves causing whiskey nerds from near and far to sit out in front of liquor stores at 4:00 am (myself included). I’ve known many to bribe department managers to find out delivery dates, but also known shop employees to hide bottles in different parts of the store to come back to later. 

Some folks have even gotten criminal in their endeavors to profit off the devine brown liquor. Distillery workers were busted in a scheme of secretly stockpiling bottles of Pappy Van Winkle (starting price is in the $1500 range) over the course of several years. Another Kentucky distillery employee was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing entire barrels of bourbon which he then sold to buyers, some of whom he sourced through his local softball team.

Depending on the bottle or barrel, I don’t blame ‘em.

Editor’s note: We encourage you to be bold in your exploration of this definitively American spirit, just don’t get caught doing anything that will land you in prison. If you’d like to discuss this further, meet us at softball practice; we’ll be sippin’ Chicken Cock Chanticleer.

From the FE Films Archive

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