I’m comfortably cruising at somewhere approaching 30,000 feet as I write this, heading to Chicago for the Indie Spirits Expo. But the Expo itself doesn’t start until Tuesday – and I’m heading out on Sunday – so what gives?
Specifically, I’m heading over early in order to participate in a Stave & Thief Society Executive Bourbon Steward training. This is serious business.
Although rum was probably America’s first spirit, there’s little argument that bourbon unseated it as our primary distilled offering early in the nineteenth century. There are many reasons for that – but the main one has to come down to agriculture. To make rum you’ve got to start with sugarcane (or a sugarcane-derived product – like molasses). And since sugarcane doesn’t grow throughout most of the continental US – that means you’re going to have to ship your raw materials some distance in order to make your hooch.
But bourbon? Bourbon is predominantly made from corn. In fact by law it must be made of at least 51% corn. And corn grows almost everywhere in the U.S. I’ve even managed to get a few ears to grow in the notoriously damp and chilly summers of the Pacific Northwest. With the ability to grow corn everywhere, you can start generating a lot of grain. And if you’ve got a lot of grain, you’ve got a lot of grain that can spoil – so what to do with it? Mash and distill it, of course. That whiskey will keep almost forever.
And with a little bit of protectionist legislation (e.g., a law requiring that bourbon only be aged in new charred American oak barrels), you’ve got a whole movement. Farmers start growing every greater amounts of corn to sell to distillers. Distillers begin making ever greater amounts of bourbon. Timber barons start felling ever greater numbers of trees to sell to cooperages to make the barrels to store the bourbon. When the bourbon is dumped out of those barrels for bottling – why not ship the barrels overseas to be used to age whisky in the UK? It’s the circle of life, Simba.
Of course, there are some common misconceptions about bourbon – and chief among those is the idea that bourbon must be made in Kentucky. That simply isn’t true. While Kentucky makes by far the lion’s share of the spirit (about 95% of it, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association), the fact is that it can be made anywhere in the United States. I happen to know of a pretty good bourbon made within a few miles of my office in Seattle.
And it is mainly in smaller producers (most of which are outside Kentucky) that we’re starting to see some pretty interesting developments in the spirit. [Note: experimentation with other varieties isn’t limited to producers outside the Bluegrass State, however. Some of Kentucky’s players are even getting in on the act.] Specifically, little guys throughout the U.S. are experimenting with different varieties of corn (including some heirloom varieties) for their mash. This isn’t necessarily the smartest move from an economic standpoint – the predominant grain (No. 2 Yellow Dent) is pretty cheap at this point and other varieties can cost quite a bit more. But with different strains you get different flavor profiles. As some of those strains may grow better in some soils or climates, there’s even an argument that you have a chance for developing bourbon terroir – though there is considerable debate about that last point. In any event, if you appreciate a good bourbon you can’t help but appreciate the fact that these distillers keep working to push the spirit forward, putting their own spin on America’s Native Spirit.