IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What traits make Kentucky bourbon so special?

There are no geographic restrictions governing where this popular spirit can be made, but Kentucky is the source of all but a drop in the annual bucket. Gourmet’s James Rodewald examines the secrets behind this quintessentially American spirit.
/ Source: Gourmet

The explosion of interest in artisanal food and drink has sound roots. Bread, beer, cheese, and wine — not to mention fruit, vegetables, and meat — all taste better when they’re made by hand and with love. Industrialization benefits the bottom line, but it doesn’t usually improve flavor. There is, however, one huge exception. While many spirits can be produced in small quantities with excellent results, bourbon is not one of them.

What is it about this quintessentially American spirit that defies the smaller-is-better orthodoxy? There are no geographic restrictions governing where bourbon can be made, but Kentucky is the source of all but a drop in the more than 50-million-gallon annual bucket (in recent years, there have been tiny quantities of bourbon made in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado). At every price level, the large, mostly corporate-owned distilleries outperform what little competition they have.

Gourmet recipe to try: The Perfect Bourbon Manhattans

There’s no doubt that Kentucky’s water is special. It flows through limestone, which makes it high in magnesium and calcium — minerals that also contribute to the magnificence of the state’s racehorses — and low in iron. These characteristics are good for fermentation and for the eventual flavor of the whiskey. But other places have limestone layers and good water, and if a craft distiller were so inclined, he could filter and remineralize his water to try to replicate or even improve on what is found naturally in Kentucky.

Could it be something about the raw materials? That limestone-filtered water is used to cook cereal grains — at least 51 percent corn by law, but also some combination of rye, wheat, or barley — and turn their starches into fermentable sugars. The quality and mix of grains certainly contribute to the ultimate flavor profile, but these are not hard-to-find ingredients. The ability to source more-flavorful grain should be an advantage for a small producer aiming to make small amounts of great bourbon. And yet the corporate behemoths continue to put out delicious and affordable bourbons. In a recent tasting of 14 of them, all with suggested retail prices under $30, even the least interesting was eminently drinkable, and Evan Williams Black Label ($12), Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($18), Old Forester ($19), and Four Roses Yellow Label ($23) were downright delicious.

Gourmet recipe to try: Classic Bourbon Balls

Okay, so it’s not the water, and it’s not the grain. In Scotland, they love to show off their gorgeous copper pot stills and explain how the shape of the boiler and the length of the neck influence the character of the spirit. In Kentucky, however — with the exception of Labrot & Graham’s excellent Woodford Reserve ($30) — everyone uses the more industrial-looking column still, which allows mash to be processed continuously rather than in batches (which is why this method is called continuous distillation). A smaller producer might choose to use a pot still since the advantage of continuous distillation disappears if you’re working with one batch at a time. A pot still is less efficient, so more flavor remains in the distillate, but there’s no question that a continuous still can be used to make spectacular whiskey. The many single-barrel, small-batch, and other reserve bourbons now available are proof of that; they can be sublime, with all the complexity of a single-malt Scotch, and they come off those same industrial stills.

Gourmet recipe to try: Unforgettable Bourbon Pecan Tarts

By law, the corn-based spirit has to be aged in charred new-oak barrels for at least two years to be labeled bourbon (is there a more legislated recipe?). The barrels are where most of the flavor comes from, but they can be bought by anyone, so that can’t be the answer. Where they are stored, however, is unique to large Kentucky producers. Thousands of 53-gallon barrels of corn liquor are stacked in huge buildings called rickhouses. As the temperature fluctuates — daily and seasonally — simple moonshine is transformed into a rich mix of vanilla, cinnamon, butterscotch, dried fruit, and maybe some mint. This does not happen anywhere else. Oddly enough, on all but the first and sometimes the second floor of the rickhouse, the whiskey gains strength as it ages; Scotch, which is often aged in used bourbon barrels, loses strength as it ages. No scientific explanation for this phenomenon has been established.

There’s no way for a small distiller to duplicate what occurs in a Kentucky rickhouse — or to wait four years to see any return on its investment — and stay in business. This has to be why, for example, I love Tuthilltown’s Hudson New York Corn Whiskey ($30; 375 ml), whereas its Baby Bourbon ($45; 375 ml), which is the same corn whiskey aged in small oak barrels for three or four months, hasn’t impressed me as much (the smaller the barrel the higher the proportion of liquid in contact with wood, but clearly wood exposure is only part of the equation — time is another crucial component for which there seems to be no substitute). Likewise, I always look forward to tasting craft spirits like Charbay’s Hop Flavored Whiskey ($325), Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey ($60), and Anchor Distilling’s various 100 percent rye bottlings ($60–$80), and the whiskey world is enriched by their presence. Obviously, none of them are trying to put Jim Beam out of business; their whiskeys are unique. But when I’ve got bourbon on my mind, I turn to a decidedly un-artisanal, mass-produced bottle of bourbon and make myself an Old Fashioned. With artisanal cherries, of course.

Gourmet recipe to try: A Decadent Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake

Cocktail of the month

  • The Old Fashioned: Dale DeGroff, in "The Essential Cocktail" (Clarkson Potter; $35), muddles a teaspoon of superfine bar sugar, three dashes of Angostura bitters, a slice of orange, a cherry (we used Luxardo’s marasche), and a splash of water or club soda in an Old Fashioned glass. He then removes the fruit solids, adds ice and two ounces of bourbon, stirs, and garnishes the drink with an orange slice and a cherry. It shows off bourbon’s charm.