Bourbon has reached an almost mythological status in the United States. It’s something so distinctly American that it’s become our country’s official spirit. It mirrors the spirit of the American melting pot. An amalgamation of influences from around the world that form the basis of what it means to be American. Whiskey, whether you believe it originated in Ireland or Scotland, was a foreign entity long before America was discovered by the Europeans hundreds of years ago.
However, what separates Bourbon from whisky?
Just a few things that give it those sweet and familiar characteristics we’ve fallen so deeply in love with.
While whiskey is defined as “a spirit made from malted grain,” Bourbon has additional qualities and regulations it must adhere to.
Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. That is the staple that gives bourbon its mellow sweetness. Also, it must not come off the still at more than 160 proof to ensure that the whiskey doesn’t become too “neutral” and strip out the character from the mash. It can’t be entered into a barrel at more than 125 proof, can not contain any additives, must be bottled between 80 and 140 proof, and be aged in an unused charred American oak barrel.
And, one final requirement that seems to be overlooked rather often, it must be made in the United States.
Bourbon, The American Spirit
If you ask anyone why bourbon is made in Kentucky, they’ll be sure to give you some stock answers. “The filtered limestone water,” or “the temperature fluctuations.” And, while neither of these are wrong, they aren’t the whole picture.
Kentucky was originally a part of the Virginia territory. They wanted to expand their population westward into the uncharted frontier, but also didn’t necessarily desire to fund said expansion. So, they gave people an offer they couldn’t refuse, “corn patch rights.”
If someone were to head westward and establish a property and plant a field of corn, they would get the deed to their parcel of land. For families who couldn’t otherwise afford land, this was an incredible opportunity. So, hundreds of people moved west and planted their fields of corn.
During the revolutionary war, the British cut off the Continental Army’s rum supply by establishing blockades along trade routes. Washington looked to the cornfields of Kentucky to produce whiskey for his troops. The western frontier was insulated from all the fighting that took place near the coast, making it ideal for supplying the alcohol that was so desperately needed.
This whiskey, and whiskey for years to come, was unaged. It was typically placed into inert vessels right off the still. So, the water most likely helped the whiskey, but the temperature affecting aging didn’t come into play until well after Kentucky distilling had already been established.
Bourbon Across The U.S.
Most people think bourbon must be made in Kentucky. And, while it’s true that the vast majority of it is made in Kentucky, there’s a massive renaissance of bourbon taking place all over the country.
As we discussed, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States so long as it also follows the other criteria. And, each of these varying locales offers something unique, to make it their own.
Some places offer different weather and seasonal patterns that affect the aging of whiskey. Temperature plays a significant part in how the barrel “breathes” by soaking up whiskey as the barrel heats and releasing the whiskey as the barrel contracts from the cold. Other places have varied elevations and different microflora in the air that affects everything from the fermentation to the wood of the barrels.
Each tiny variation places its own mark upon the finished product. For example, Colorado is quickly becoming a region widely known for producing quality bourbon.
Laws Whiskey & Colorado Bourbon
Laws Whiskey House in Denver has fully embraced Colorado’s unique climate and terroir.
They only use Colorado-grown heirloom grains in their whiskeys. Heirloom grains aren’t genetically modified, so they are left to grow and change based solely on their environment, which gives the whiskey character truly unique to the region. And, if you want to learn more about Laws and the grains they select, you can check out our article by clicking here.
Denver itself has a drastically different aging climate than Kentucky. It sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. As the elevation increases, pressure decreases. However, being in a mountainous region it has drastic “pressure swings.” These swings act as a “heartbeat,” causing whiskey to push in and out of the barrel as it tries to equalize pressure.
Laws notes that “pressure swings do not reduce the necessary time in the barrel. But that these forces are one of the things that make Colorado-aged whiskey distinctive to the area.”
Colorado is also an incredibly dry environment in which water tends to evaporate more quickly than alcohol. This causes the proof to increase naturally the longer the whiskey ages.
This is the opposite of the cool and wet regions of Scotland that keep scotch at a lower proof.
As distilleries like Laws harness these differences and make them their own, we all win. It gives us new, unique, delicious whiskey to try. These distilleries bring new life and innovation to local shelves like Laws creating the first Colorado bourbon and whiskey. These differences give rise to a vastly different, yet no-less delicious bourbon than Kentucky varietals.
So, think twice before you give a non-Kentucky bourbon the side-eye. Like the American melting pot, Laws Whiskey House and other brands outside of Kentucky are pushing the bourbon bar forward by leaving their own delicious mark on the spirits we love so much.
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Greg Sinadinos started his spirits journey writing a whiskey periodical for Fine Tobacco NYC Magazine. He began answering review requests under a social media page he named “Whiskey Culture,” which quickly merged with Greg’s passion for connecting with others and his interest in history.
Today, Greg travels the country not just looking for great whiskey, but also exploring the history and individuals that the whiskey community is founded upon. He has authored “Whiskey History From Around The World” and is the host of “The Rickhouse” web series.