Last Updated on November 25, 2020 by Novotaste
Bourbon’s popularity continues to grow across Canada, with different expressions of the corn-based, barrel-aged spirit selling briskly, from popular brands to highly sought-after limited-edition styles.
Although bourbon whisky’s production is defined by U.S. federal law, there’s an extremely broad selection of products and flavour profiles that meet the regulations. There are also numerous misconceptions surrounding America’s distinctive style of whisky.
Let’s start with the basic guidelines established by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Bourbon must be made in the United States and distilled from a fermented mash that’s at least 51-per-cent corn. Once distilled, the spirit is required by law to be stored in charred new oak containers, at not more than 125 proof (62.5 per cent alcohol by volume). Following the aging process, the whisky must be bottled at 80 proof or higher (at least 40 per cent alcohol by volume or higher).
This leads to some commonly held misinterpretations, beginning with bourbon being seen strictly as a product of Kentucky. Despite the vast majority of bourbon being made in the Bluegrass State – more than 90 per cent of it comes from Kentucky – you can find ones made in New York, Illinois and elsewhere. It’s also not solely aged in American oak barrels. You can find bourbon that has been stored in containers produced with wood from trees grown in forests in France, Japan, Brazil, Hungary or wherever oak grows.
Distillers are free to use any shape of container so long as it is made from oak that’s been charred and hasn’t been previously used. American oak barrels are most prevalent due to the wood’s availability and relative affordability compared to the cost of imported wood staves or barrels. The barrel’s shape helps ensure that the spirit comes into contact with the blackened staves, whose cracked texture is often described as looking like alligator skin. Throughout the aging process, whisky flows in and out of the wood as temperatures change with the season. The flame-toasted wood helps to remove undesirable aromas and flavours, while helping to fix the colour of the brown spirit and impart the mellow, sweet character that makes bourbon’s taste distinctive from Scotch and other whiskies.
Bourbon producers aren’t able to add colour or flavouring to their products. Time in the barrel needs to do most of that work. A bourbon’s character is also determined by the proportion of corn and other grains – such as barley, wheat and rye – used in the mash. Sweeter styles use more corn, while other opt to increase the rye component to increase the spicy character of the spirit.
Curiously, there are set minimum aging periods for bourbon. While it must be aged for at least two years to be considered a “straight bourbon,” there aren’t strict regulations on the practice. As a result, decisions made on the time in oak help different distilleries define their house style and attempt to develop a unique identity to bring to market.