Barrel Warehouse at the Woodford Reserve Distillery

Kentucky: Birthplace of Bourbon

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

What California is for wine in America, Kentucky is for bourbon.

The Bluegrass State is perhaps best known for the Kentucky Derby and its prized horses, but with 95% of the world’s bourbon produced there, it also lays claim to being the birthplace of the drink. Here, amid an unparalleled tradition of craftsmanship, proof of the unique bond between the spirit and the state.

PROOF OF SPIRIT James Leynse/Corbis/Getty Images PROOF OF SPIRIT In 1964, Congress declared bourbon whiskey “a distinctive product of the United States,” marking the liquor as America’s official spirit, and thereby cementing it as a unique ingredient of American heritage. MADE IN AMERICA Bloomberg via Getty Images MADE IN AMERICA But to be a bourbon, legal standards require a rigid set of criteria to be met during production, including: at least 51% corn must be used in the grain mixture; it must be made in brand new charred oak barrels; it cannot contain any additives (water is the only exception); it must be stored at a maximum of 125 proof and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. And the most important criteria of all? If it’s not produced in the United States of America, it’s not a true bourbon. ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN’T GOLD Bloomberg Creative Photos ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN’T GOLD While all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. Because the majority of bourbon’s grain mixture is made of corn — a sweeter morsel as far as grains go — adding more corn gives bourbon whiskey that “sweet spot” of flavor. Most distilleries use more than 65% of corn in their mash bill to produce the sweet golden liquor. CHARRED TO PERFECTION Bloomberg via Getty Images CHARRED TO PERFECTION Since such minimal ingredients are used to produce bourbon, distilleries rely on an old technique to amplify the flavor. Charring the barrel gives bourbon that deep amber hue as well as an extra dose of flavor.
Bourbon Barrel Manufacturing At The Brown-Forman Cooperage Facility
A Beam Inc. Distillery Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Bloomberg via Getty Images WHY KENTUCKY? Alissa Sanderson WHY KENTUCKY? Bourbon may be legally bound to be made in America, but there’s no law restricting its production to the state of Kentucky. So why does 95% of the world’s bourbon come from the Bluegrass State? It’s in the water. Kentucky is situated on a bed of limestone — nature’s best filter — which helps purify and eliminate unwanted minerals from the water. Much like with bagels from New York City, water from any other part of the country just won’t make the cut for a tasty barrel of the golden spirit. Kentucky also boasts some fertile ground — the rich soil provides the ideal conditions for growing corn, one of bourbon’s main ingredients. A BARREL FOR EVERYONE A BARREL FOR EVERYONE Kentucky had 6.8 million barrels of bourbon aging away in 2016, roughly one and a half barrels for each person living in the state. SIP DON’T SHOOT Bloomberg via Getty Images SIP DON’T SHOOT While newly minted 21-year-olds jump at the chance to display their new rite of passage into adulthood by shooting back a shot of the good stuff, they’re better off taking note from the boozers of the ‘Mad Men’ era and opt for a sip rather than a shot of bourbon instead. The process and ingredients used to produce the barrel-aged liquor are there for a reason, true bourbon-lovers sip the spirit to enjoy the full flavors intended by the makers.
People in distillery tasing whiskey
Brown-Forman Corp. Woodford Reserve Distillery
Westend61; Bloomberg via Getty Images THE KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL Blaine Harrington III THE KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL Established by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) in 1999, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a road trip-style experience from Louisville to Lexington, offering bourbon lovers a chance to visit the Bluegrass State’s signature distilleries. While only ten distilleries are part of the official “trail” — Angel’s Envy, Bulleit, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve — the state of Kentucky is littered with distilleries. From tours to tastings, with a wealth of American history thrown in, there’s something for everyone on this trail, whether drinking or dry.

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