My father-in-law is a scotch drinker — a loyal Johnnie Walker Black Label guy. I always thought his scotch smelled like lighter fluid, and I never understood why anyone would want to drink it. (He still jokes with my husband that he only drinks scotch to keep it out of the hands of the kids). And I always assumed bourbon was the same flavor of brown liquor. Until one winter, at a very cold football game (for which I was woefully underdressed), a friend handed me a glass of bourbon and said, “Stop with the shivering. Drink this.”
There’s nothing like hands-on learning.
And that day, I learned three important things:
- I like bourbon.
- All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
- When it’s 3 degrees outside, being warm trumps looking cute. No one gives a crap what you look like. Wear a hat.
Bourbon is a truly American spirit. In 1964, the US Senate declared (they love to declare stuff) bourbon a “distinctive American spirit”. This means no one else in the world can make whiskey and call it bourbon. And, in 2007, the US Senate declared September National Bourbon Heritage Month. And it’s September!
The provenance of the word bourbon comes from the French House of Bourbon, but after that point, people disagree about whether the drink’s name came from Bourbon County, Kentucky or Bourbon Street in New Orleans (both are named after the French House of Bourbon). Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, but it’s roots are Southern, particularly Kentucky. In fact, there are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky (4.7 million) than there are people (4.3 million). My money is on Bourbon County, Kentucky. After all, New Orleans gets to claim Southern Comfort.
I still get all the whiskeys confused sometimes, so I made myself a cheat sheet (with emojis, because my tween says you can never go wrong with emojis):
🇺🇸 🌽Bourbon is made in the USA and must be made from at least 51% corn. Other requirements: Bourbon must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80% ABV), and aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years. The only thing that can be added to bourbon is water, to bring down the proof (other whiskeys can add colors and flavors).
🎸 Tennessee Whiskey is made in Tennessee from corn, and uses a charcoal filtering process.
🍀 Irish Whiskey is made in Ireland from unmalted barley.
🌲 Scotch Whisky (no “e”) is made in Scotland and is made from malted barley. (There’s no Scottish flag emoji, so I had to use the closest thing I could find — a Scotch pine tree).
🍁 Canadian Whisky (again, no “e”) is made in Canada from rye. (And really, why the heck isn’t there a Canadian flag emoji?)
You don’t have to work very hard to connect bourbon to US history (think six degrees of separation, but with bourbon instead of Bacon). Set your DeLorean for November 1863. Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the US Army, was plagued almost his entire career by rumors he was a raging alcoholic. This is a topic of lively cocktail party debate among Grant scholars– was he an alcoholic, or was his drinking simply part of the cultural norm of the time? I’m happy to let the Grant scholars hash that one out.
Critics of General Grant complained bitterly and endlessly to President Lincoln about Grant’s excessive drinking. Lincoln was well known for his sense of humor, and is rumored to have silenced Grant’s critics with this remark:
Various versions of these words are all over the Internet — on credible and dubious sites alike. The New York Herald published a version of these words in their November 1863 issue. But that doesn’t necessarily make them true. There are more than a few Lincoln scholars who argue the quote is probably untrue. But I’m not a Lincoln scholar, and I rather like the words. We’ll probably never know for sure, and I’m OK with that.
If you’re wondering, Grant’s favorite whiskey was Old Crow, a Kentucky bourbon that’s still made today. I’ve never tried it myself — it’s mostly found on the bottom shelf of liquor stores — a shelf that has generally frightened me since college.
I found this great Civil War era Old Crow ad on Etsy. According to the Old Crow entry on Wikipedia, the crow is supposed to symbolize the bridge between the north and the south. Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War and never seceded, but I’m not sure I get the crow as bridge symbolism. I love the “fine print” on this wartime ad.
So . . . here’s to bourbon! I like mine over ice (spheres, in particular) — the ice draws subtle flavors out of the bourbon. That, and it doesn’t taste like fire when I drink it. My husband says one of the reasons he loves me is because I drink decidedly un-girly drinks. Whenever we’re at a business dinner, wedding reception, etc., he can order my drink at the bar without having to hemorrhage man points (yes, Appletini, he’s looking at you).
Do you have a favorite bourbon? Do you prefer your bourbon solo, or in a cocktail?