There was a decent article on it in the Dining & Wine section of last week’s New York Times. Of course it’s a huge topic, especially here in Kentucky where the vast majority of the stuff is made. There’s a prevailing myth that in order for a corn whiskey to be called “bourbon” it has to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. That isn’t true, though even here in Kentucky it’s widely believed that in order for a bourbon to be called “bourbon” it has to at least be made somewhere in the state, the entire territory of which was once-upon-a-time known as “Bourbon County”. Not true either, none of it. Lastly, there is a widely held myth that Bourbon County, in one of the world’s great ironies, is “dry” (i.e. that no alcohol can be legally sold there). While it is true that a near majority of Kentucky’s 120 counties are “dry” (and a clear majority put at least some limits on alcohol sales), Bourbon County, which is in fact where the spirit originated, is about as wet as a county gets.
So what then is bourbon? As the NYT article makes clear, the only real strictures the federal government puts on the stuff is that it be a whiskey made of at least 51% corn, and aged in charred oak barrels. What the article doesn’t do, however, is emphasize how different charred-barrel aging is in the world of liquor. In fact, it’s unique to bourbon. No other spirit on Earth (at least that I know of) is treated in that way.
Which begs the question: why? Who ever thought to put whiskey in a burned oak barrel and let it sit there? No one knows, though there have been many attempts to explain it. Popularly, there’s what I call the “hey! you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” explanation, which holds that there was once a fire in a Bourbon county barrel-making workshop in the 1700’s, the damaged results of which some whiskey makers decided to use anyway — eureka! Another similar one maintains that an inattentive cooper (barrel maker) over-heated some of his staves in the process of bending them, and sold the blackened barrel at a discount to a poor distiller. Amazing! As we all know, the world of food history (and especially journalism) is filled with cock-and-bull stories like that.
More believable explanations maintain that barrel “toasting” was a technique that was well known to coopers, food makers and grocers on the American frontier, and was emplyed as a preventative, since the wood of the American oak contains large cells (or pockets) of tree sap. Made into barrel staves, the wood tended to leak that sap into any liquid that it came into contact with. But by briefly setting the interior of the barrel afire, the pockets of sap were burned away, and in the bargain, flavors that are actually beneficial to the flavor of whiskey (sugars and sweet-tasting gums) were released. There’s no real evidence of this explanation either, though it is known that fire-extracted tree sugars and gums were often added to corn whiskey to soften its mule-kick flavor. Maybe some enterprising Kentuckian decided it was easier to just burn the barrel and pour in the booze than to take the time to extract flavoring agents and blend them in separately. We’ll probably never know, for being mostly under-educated hillbillies they tended not to write much down. However I think it’s safe to assume that whatever the process for the introduction of the burnt wood barrel really was, it had a lot more to do with trail and error than happenstance.
Another word about that NYT bourbon article before I go get some work done. While the “tasting report” that’s included is interesting and somewhat useful, I personally wouldn’t take it too seriously. A bunch of self-satisfied Manhattanites sitting around sipping shots in trendy bars are not the first people I’d look to for a fair assessment of mountain hooch. Too bad they couldn’t line up a panel of Appalachian moonshiners, railroad workmen and coal miners for that job (but then I’m sure they had tight deadlines to work to). Examine it, but with a somewhat jaundiced eye. While I’ve only lived in Kentucky for a short time (and am by no means an expert) I will vouch for just about anything by the Old Rip Van Winkle folks. Also, for an extremely pleasant bourbon experience (without the rattlesnake bite of the classic stuff) a very nice little small batch by the name of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve by Barton Brands, just down the road in Bardstown. Interestingly, I was going to recommend Basil Hayden (which also made the NYT tasting list) for your fruitcake this year since in addition to being “spicy” it is also very sweet for a bourbon (it’s also made with a fair proportion of rye, which I’ve always been partial to).