Kentucky has a long history of producing great things. It is the home to one of the most famous racing tracks in the United States, Churchill Downs. A powerhouse in college basketball also resides in Kentucky at the state university. One of the best boxers to enter the ring, Muhammad Ali, was born in Louisville. It is known as the Bluegrass State, mainly because the fertile soil produces a grass that is rich in nutrients and a slightly blue color, which helps to produce horses and other livestock that are famous the world over. As early as the end of the 19th century, there were postcards available that extolled the four pillars of Kentucky society: racehorses, tobacco, pretty women – and bourbon.
Bourbon whiskey (or whisky, if you prefer) is known by many as “the spirit of America”. While bourbon is a whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. There are very specific traits a whiskey must have to be considered bourbon. It is internationally recognized that one of the defining traits of bourbon is that it distilled in the United States. It is believed by many that it has to come from Bourbon County, KY, but that is not true. Ironically, no bourbon is distilled in that county. However, 90% of the bourbon that is distilled in America is distilled in Kentucky. Bourbon must also be made from a mash (a mixture of grains and water) that is at least 51% corn. Other grains can be mixed in to the mash, such as rye, wheat, or malted barley. But, the bulk of it has to be corn, a grain that is native to North America. Nothing but water can be added to the distillate, and that distillate cannot be any higher than 160 proof (80% alcohol). The barrel that it must go into must be made of new, charred, American oak barrels (which are later sold to other distilleries that are allowed with fewer barrel restrictions), and it cannot go into the barrel at stronger than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol). At a minimum, bourbon must be aged for at least two years. The minimum strength it can be bottled at is 80 proof (40% alcohol). All of this was defined by Congress in 1964.
Before World War I, bourbon was one of the most beloved spirits in America. While whiskey was being made in America long before the Scotch and Irish made their way to Kentucky, it was their influence that truly began the influence of modern bourbon is created. They took the methods they used to create whisky in England, and applied that know how to corn, not the rye and wheat they were used to. Bourbon, like so many wonderful inventions, has more than one creator. The short list of people who have been given credit for how bourbon developed in Kentucky are Baptist minister Elijah Craig (debated as the first person to age moonshine into bourbon), Evan Williams (one of the first distillers), and Jacob Beam. Just as bourbon was gaining a foothold in the United States, World War I struck. When the United States stepped into the war in 1917, alcohol production was severely limited to weapons grade, high proof alcohols. World War I ended at the same time as the Temperance movement won its battle against alcohol, and the Volstead Act and 18th Amendment decimated the American liquor industry. After Prohibition was repealed, the Great Depression and World War II further cut into the production of alcohol. By the time the U.S. had decent bourbon back on the shelves, it had not been seen in this country for nearly three decades. In that time, lighter and spicier Canadian blends had charmed the American palate, and the boys going overseas to fight the war (or get a drink) had brought back tastes for rum and vodka. It was not really until recently that bourbon climbed back into the American spotlight, prompting more experimentation from the distillers in Kentucky. Markets outside the U.S. are also causing the demand for bourbon to grow.
If you are looking for a nice road trip and the opportunity to sample some of the best bourbons available, the proud people in Kentucky have set one up for you. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a lovely two day, seventy five mile drive through northern Kentucky, from Lexington to Shepherdsville. During the drive you get to sample bourbons from Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey. Wherever you start your journey (Woodford Reserve is the closest to Lexington), you can get a passport for the Trail. At each distillery, you can get the passport stamped. Get all six stamps, and you earn yourself a lovely t-shirt, compliments of the Kentucky Distillers Association. Each distillery offers samples and bottles for sale, as well as non-alcoholic drinks for the kids. The tour times at each site vary, but most of the tours last between an hour and an hour and a half. If you want more information about places to stay and the trail itself, you can check out the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website.
Bourbons are remarkably complex in taste, and there is a wide variety of them throughout the Miami Valley. Some bars stock in trade is whiskey, such as Sidebar 410, where the variety of bourbon and whiskey covers a wide spectrum. The Pub at The Greene has a nice selection of bourbons, and for a modest price you can get a nice sampling of three. Most bars you will go to will readily have Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. Woodford Reserve has been gaining popularity over the last few years, bolstered by the fact that the official mint julep of the Kentucky Derby is made with it. Knob Creek is found at a better-than-average amount of bars, and it also has a very lovely flavor. Other highly rated (and delicious) bourbons include Booker’s Small Batch (120 or so proof, right from the barrel), Bulleit Bourbon (a heavy dose of rye in the mash adds a peppery spice to it), Buffalo Trace (sweeter and thicker than the average bourbon, with a hint of brown sugar), and Elijah Craig (another of the greats, with toffee and oak flavors coming forward) Most people who love bourbon will tell you that the only thing it should be mixed with is water or ice, but many people also enjoy it with cola or ginger ale. Celebrate the rest of National Bourbon Month by ordering one of these fine bourbons, maybe even in a Manhattan if the mood strikes you. Cheers!
The Classic Manhattan
2 oz. bourbon (any whiskey will do, but it IS National Bourbon Month)
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Pour all of the ingredients into it. Stir for 30 seconds to chill the contents, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.