The bourbon files

Americans treat this as a national symbol of pride. Discover why.

Bibek Bhattacharya        Print Edition: April 20, 2008

Americans treat this as a national symbol of pride. Discover why.

Back in the 1790s, soon after the American War of Independence, the absence of any functioning economic structure meant that many corn growers in the US had to ferment their stock and turn it into whiskey (that’s how the Irish and the Americans usually spell it). Given the large amounts of corn used in making the whiskey, it soon became quite distinct from other whiskeys. Although many stories have been put forward to account for the emergence of Bourbon—including a famous one that says that a Baptist minister and distiller called Elijah Craig invented it—the whiskey in its present form only evolved in the late 19th Century. Bourbon county in Kentucky was so named after the French royal family, to honour France’s role in the American War of Independence. At the turn of the 19th century, all the whiskey made in the region was shipped from Bourbon, making it synonymous with the whiskey.

What’s Bourbon whiskey?

Bourbon whiskeys
Bourbon whiskeys
In 1964, an Act of Congress recognised bourbon whiskey as a “distinctive American product” and a clear differentiation was made between whiskey produced in the country and that produced outside it.

Barrels being aged
Barrels being aged
For starters, it has to be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51 per cent corn; it should be distilled to no more than 160 proof (US); must be 100 per cent natural (with nothing other than water added to the mix) and must be aged in new American charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.

Making of the icon

Most bourbons are issued in small batches. This means that the whiskey is taken from a “batch” of barrels that have been mixed or mingled prior to bottling. For many popular brands like Jim Beam and Ancient Age, the mingling batch may have as many as 200 barrels or more. But a mingle for a small batch is usually 20 barrels or less. A single-barrel bourbon is rare and issued only in limited editions. In this type, the whiskey is actually taken and bottled from one barrel. While the legal requirement is for bourbon to consist of at least 51 per cent corn, most distillers in the US today use 65-75 per cent corn. If a whiskey contains 80 per cent or more corn, then it becomes a Corn Whiskey. Although the traditional flavouring grain that goes into making bourbon is rye and malted barley, some distillers, like the premium Maker’s Mark, use wheat. Needless to say, bourbon’s sweetness and softness come from the corn.

Ingredients and mix

The corn is first ground into a coarse flour. This is then partially de-starched by cooking it in water and cooled. Next, other grains are added and the mixture is further cooled, and finally, malted barley is added.

The mash

Mash is the starchy mixture from which the alcohol is distilled. Fermentation takes place in large tubs, sometimes holding up to 50,000 gallons. Yeast is added to the mash to break the sugar into alcohol—the level and quality of yeast affects the taste and aroma of the bourbon. The fermentation process usually lasts three to four days. After this, the product is a sweetened mash called the “distiller’s beer”. All modern bourbon is produced using the Sour Mash method. In this process, Backset (or liquid from a previous distillation) is added to the new mash. This keeps every subsequent batch similar to each other.


The mash is pumped into a still, distilled and the vapour collected. This is called a “low wine”, which contains 20 per cent alcohol. This goes through a second distillation process and the result is the “high wine”, which usually contains about 50 per cent alcohol. At the end of the process, the final whiskey is extracted, and then aged.


Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. To get this effect, the barrels are charred so that the burnt wood helps mellow the whiskey and, since the barrels are new, they impart their flavour faster. In actual practice, though, most bourbons are aged for at least four years.

 Three Bourbon cocktails

Mint Julep
• 90 ml bourbon
• 6 Fresh mint leaves
• 1 tsp. superfine sugar
• Crushed ice

How: Muddle mint leaves with superfine sugar and a little water in a mint julep cup. Fill the cup with ice. Pour bourbon and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

Bourbon Sour

• 60 ml bourbon
• juice of half lemon
• 1/2 tsp sugarfine sugar
• Garnish: orange slice and cherry

How: Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a tall glass and garnish with the fruits.

Kentucky Colonel

• 90 ml bourbon
• 15 ml Benedictine
• Garnish: Lemon Twist

How: Shake both the ingredients in a shaker with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Bourbon whiskeys you can buy at a store near you
1. Jim Beam Black
Price: Rs 2,010 (approximately)
2. Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Price: 1,575 (approximately)
3. Maker’s Mark
Price: Rs 3,000 (approximately) 


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