LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) — It’s no question that bourbon is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. According to IBISWorld, the market size of the bourbon distilleries industry in the U.S. has increased faster than any in the consumer goods and services sector.
But, this type of growth didn’t happen overnight. This is an industry that is deeply rooted in the country, specifically in Kentucky, with ties all the way back to its origin in 1789. As with anything that has that type of reach and history, information can become hazy once it’s passed along between different entities over time.
It is for this reason that myths surrounding bourbon have become widespread.
So, let’s take a look at, and debunk five myths surrounding bourbon.
1. Bourbon is only made in Kentucky
This may be a hard pill to swallow for some Kentuckians as bourbon is widely considered by many to be a state exclusive. In reality, bourbon can, and is, made in other places — just not many. According to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, a whopping 95% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky. What makes bourbon a bourbon is the way in which it is manufactured and aged, not the location in which it occurs. As long as the mash (a mixture of grains) is made of at least 51% corn, is distilled at 160 proof, and aged in new charred oaked barrels, then you’ve got yourself a bourbon. In short, the bourbon you get from the shelves doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, but it most likely is.
2. Older bourbon means better bourbon
A common misconception is that bourbon gets better with age, and that is partially true. The goal of aging bourbon is to attain desired flavor combinations. Bourbon takes on distinct flavors by aging in charred barrels, and the time in which it does so. If it doesn’t get enough time to mature and take on different notes the barrel provides, you’ll get a spicy and (to some) unappealing taste. If the bourbon ages for too long in the barrel, experts say it takes on too much of a woody flavor, and the notes of fruit, caramel, and nuts that many distillers are after can become diminished.
“I’ve tasted 30-year-old bourbon, and it tastes like boiled sticks,” said Barrell Craft Spirits’ founder Joe Beatrice. “You really lose the flavor of the grains, and the wood takes over.”
The creation of bourbon is all about finding the right amount of time to find the desired flavor, and that can be three, four, or 15 years — the possibilities are endless.
3. Whiskey is bourbon
Do you remember in fourth-grade math class when your teacher explained that a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square? Well, whiskey and bourbon have a similar relationship.
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
This distinction, again, relies on how the spirit is manufactured and aged. Whiskey is a spirit made from fermented and distilled grains, but to become a bourbon, the mash has to contain at least 51% corn and be aged in new charred oak barrels. All bourbon starts out as a whiskey, but the process it goes through is what pushes it into the realm of bourbon.
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4. Bourbon is named after Bourbon County
Where bourbon actually got its name is likely the most controversial myth on the list, simply because there are so many theories surrounding it. It is true that there were, and still are, many distillers in the Bourbon County, Kentucky, area that produced the spirit known as bourbon. But Michael Veach, curator at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, told Smithsonian Magazine it is not likely that this is where the name was derived.
Veach said the story that bourbon was named after Bourbon County did not surface until the 1870s, but bottles labeled as bourbon started being produced in the 1950s. Veach argues that the name came to be after two men — the Tarascon brothers — arrived in Louisville from France and began shipping local whiskey to New Orleans; more specifically, a district known as Bourbon Street. Their whiskey then became known as the variety sold on Bourbon Street, which evolved into simply calling it bourbon.
5. Bourbon ages in the bottle
So once bourbon is bottled, does it continue to age and further produce flavors? According to the American Bourbon Association, no. Unlike wine, bourbon does not age once it’s bottled into glass. The aging of bourbon solely depends on its chemical interactions with the charred oak barrel it is housed in after distillation. Bourbon can, however, have a slight change in flavor profiles once the seal of the bottle is cracked. This is due to oxidization, which is when the oxygen replaces ethanol molecules inside the bourbon. A bottle of unopened bourbon has an indefinite shelf life, but one that has been opened can go bad at some point thereafter.
Editors note: A special thank you to the efforts of IBISWorld, the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, Barrell Craft Spirits, the Smithsonian Magazine, and the American Bourbon Association for their contributions to this story.