If you had to guess (and I’ll spare you the suspense) what the most consumed alcoholic beverages in Russia, Mexico, and Jamaica are, you’d probably guess vodka, tequila and rum.
And you’d be right.
If I asked you why you guessed those answers, you’d probably reply that those particular alcohols were synonymous with those countries. They were basically invented there. They’re indigenous!
And you’d be right again.
Now, tell me what the most-consumed spirit is in the United States?
It’s now vodka, my friends, passing whiskey with 31 percent of all distilled spirit sales in the U.S. as of 2013.
The unfortunate part about all of this is that bourbon whiskey is the only true indigenous spirit of this country, created on our soil from corn, one of America’s greatest crops, and aged in one of America’s most-treasured, forested resources, American White Oak.
It’s a shame that a clear, almost tasteless alcohol has replaced one with such complexity, color and flavor, but such is the case.
Now granted, I’m not a vodka drinker; I don’t care for tequila or gin either. But I do enjoy bourbon.
And while I’m not what you would call an expert, I’ve sampled, enjoyed, studied and come to appreciate the many styles of bourbon and the many ways this particular whiskey is crafted all over this great country. So I guess I feel a little national pride when I take a sip, probably not too dissimilar to the Scotch.
What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Simply put, it’s a distilled spirit, made from a recipe (Distillers call it a mash bill.) of no less than 51-percent corn, with other variable grains, such as rye, wheat and barley added for additional flavors and character.
It can be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80-percent alcohol) aged at no more than 125 proof (62.5-percent alcohol) and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40-percent alcohol).
The finished distilled liquor (which is clear) must be aged in new, charred (“toasted”) American White Oak barrels for a minimum of two years if it is labeled as straight bourbon. Otherwise, there is no legal aging requirement.
There are many other requirements that must be met in order for the distiller to label bourbon correctly. However, there are also many misconceptions about these requirements. Here are some of them:
- Bourbon must come from Bourbon County, Kentucky. (False. In fact, bourbon doesn’t have to even come from Kentucky. But it DOES have to come from the U.S. to be labeled as such.).
- Jack Daniels is a bourbon (Well, Jack Daniels (like George Dickel) is actually a Tennessee whiskey. Like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey has been regulated in its own way and has been declared by the United States as a distinctly unique product. The Lincoln County Process of charcoal filtration is one reason why. Having said that, if made from 51-percent corn, it could be called bourbon, but it’s not. (Even Jack Daniels doesn’t label or refer to its product as bourbon.).
Following in the footsteps of the founders.
When this country was founded, you used to be able to make your own whiskey. As a matter of fact, two of this country’s greatest founders, Elijah Craig, the person credited as being the likely founder of bourbon, and Thomas Jefferson, the guy on the nickel, were both whiskey distillers. And if you think an ex-President is an unlikely candidate, Elijah was a Baptist minister!
Nowadays, distilling spirits (without a distiller’s license) is a federal offense. And while you may actually legally own a still (Go figure!), using it for anything more than creating ethanol for running farm vehicles is strictly taboo.
So, what is there left to do?
Aging your own spirits is an up-and-coming new trend in beverages. And it’s not only for whiskey but also for vodka, tequila, rum and even some hybrid concoctions like Manhattans.
The basic idea is that you buy your own toasted American White Oak barrels (as small as 1 liter), and then you add your purchased, un-aged, distilled spirit. The rest is pretty easy; sit back and watch the magic happen.
How long do I have to wait?
The barrel size most people buy to age their own liquor is between 1 to 10 liters, with 5-liter barrels being pretty common. (That’s about 5 to 6 (bottles) fifths worth.)
By comparison, the major distillers use 53-gallon barrels which are about 50 times larger than that by volume. What that means to you is that your home-aged liquor in 5-liter barrels will age many, many times more rapidly than the huge barrels used at the distillery because your liquor will be exposed to so much more wood and char per liter. In fact, what otherwise would take four years to mature in a 53-gallon barrel at the distillery can happen as quickly as two to three months in a 5-liter micro-barrel at home.
More wood and more char equals faster aging.
I decided to see (and taste) this for myself, so I recently purchased some new American White Oak barrels, made specifically to store and age spirits from Oak Barrels Ltd. I also bought six bottles of the new Try Box Series of New Make (which is another word for un-aged whiskey right off the still) from Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky.
At 125 proof, I added distilled water (as the distilleries do) to bring it to 100 proof for my aging, which I began on December 4th, 2013.
I’m guessing I’ll begin to taste something I like by mid-February at the earliest (Of course, you need to sample it along the way to see how it’s progressing.), but if it’s going well, I may just keep it aging until it’s something really special.
I’m just beginning this bourbon odyssey, and I’m anxious to see exactly where it leads. If you’d like to join this beverage adventure, check out my video of how I got started, and follow along as I post updated videos and results.