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Exploring Bourbon Myths

Posted on by Eric Burke

Bourbon is fascinating. There are rules, regulations, international treaties, books, magazines, television and blogs that all talk about it. It's a bit of history in a glass. It's at the same time very simple and amazingly complex. Is it any wonder that people are confused? 

Myths abound, but sometimes it's nice to have a little clarity as to which are true, which are plausible and which are false. The myths that follow are ones that I've run across in the wild recently. I've done research to find the truth of the matter as I see it. But for each I'm relying on my interpretation of the regulations as they are published or a historian's interpretation of primary sources (as I do not have access to them myself). As more information is discovered or new laws are made, I might be proved right or wrong. Laws and histories, like bourbon are both very simple and amazingly complex.

Myth 1

"It can only be called bourbon if it's made in Bourbon County." Or more expansively "...in Kentucky."

It seems that I hear some version of this every time I start talking bourbon with someone new. And the fact of the matter is that this is simply not true. As far as the federal government is concerned bourbon can be made any where in the United States. 

The US government's Code of Federal Regulations has an entire section devoted to the labeling and advertisement of distilled spirits, including a subpart known as the Standards of Identity which defines what each spirit is or is not. For example, Scotch Whisky is listed as: "a distinctive product of Scotland, manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom." Canadian Whisky is listed as: "a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada." Irish Whisky is "whisky which is a distinctive product of Ireland, manufactured either in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland, in compliance with their laws regulating the manufacture of Irish whisky." You get the picture. 

Now for bourbon whisky the entire definition is as follows: "“Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type."

You notice there is no mention of a place of origin at all. Not Kentucky, not even the US as a whole. For that you need to look at the various trade agreements that the United States has with other nations. A good example of this is NAFTA, which in Chapter 3, Annex 313: Distinctive Products defines bourbon as follows: "Canada and Mexico shall recognize Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey, which is a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee, as distinctive products of the United States. Accordingly, Canada and Mexico shall not permit the sale of any product as Bourbon Whiskey or Tennessee Whiskey, unless it has been manufactured in the United States in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States governing the manufacture of Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey."

As you can see this one is false. That doesn't mean that most of the bourbon isn't made in Kentucky. It just means that there is no reason (other than inertia, tradition and possibly terroir) why it happens to be that way.

Myth 2

"Bourbon is named after Bourbon County, KY"

If you've ever been on a distillery tour in Kentucky, you've probably heard a version of this. It's pervasive, it's a source of local pride. It might even be true. Maybe. But we very probably will never know for sure. People in the Ohio River valley in the early 1800's had a hard enough time just scraping out a living. It's hard to fault them for not taking the time to document why the whiskey they were making was being called what it was. It was enough to know that it was called bourbon. 

Enter the internet. Enthusiasts today have casual access to more knowledge than any scholar had throughout history. And, of course, we use that casual access to knowledge to drill down and explore the options (argue about) such hard hitting topics as "where did bourbon get it's name?"

There are a couple of conflicting theories about this. In chapter 3 of his book, Bourbon, Straight: the Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, Chuck Cowdery tells the story of American settlers moving into the part of Virginia known as Bourbon County (after the French royal family and the part that would eventually become Kentucky) and starting to make whiskey from the native corn they grew there. He goes on to state that "when the region was divided into smaller counties, the region continued to be known as 'Old Bourbon' and the corn whiskey made there came to be known as 'Old Bourbon Whiskey." (1)

A variant of this that I've heard on tours is that the whiskey was shipped to New Orleans in barrels marked with the port of departure "Bourbon County" and that as it traveled south on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers it mellowed and took on the red hew of the aged bourbons we are familiar with today. They then fell in love with it and clamored for some more of that Bourbon County Whiskey, eventually shortening it to Bourbon whiskey. There's a problem with this variant though and that brings us to another prominent theory. 

In his book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, Michael Veach tells us that while there was trade between the ports of Kentucky and New Orleans, there wouldn't have been enough to catch the attention of New Orleanians and more importantly, the ports were not in Bourbon County while that trade was happening so they would be unlikely to have been labeled as such. Veach posits just the opposite theory, that people traveling the river out of New Orleans fell in love with the spirit while on Bourbon Street and asked for some more of that "Bourbon Street whiskey." Eventually abbreviating it to bourbon whiskey as well. (2)

Veach does not dismiss the Bourbon name for Bourbon County connection out of hand though. He also mentions that it is entirely possible that a bunch of clever marketers noticed it and it stuck. Having worked in marketing for over a decade, this is the one I'm most inclined to believe. You can make people believe almost anything if you throw enough money at it and tell it to them often enough. 

So was bourbon named after Bourbon County? It's plausible, but for the time being this is a question without a definitive answer.

Myth 3

"Bourbon needs to be aged for two years"

I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone on Twitter proudly announce this only to be firmly swatted down by someone who knows better. But it's no wonder that people are confused. I've even heard tour guides on large distillery tours making this same pronouncement. It's time to check the Standards of Identity again. The relevant part is near the end: "stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers." And it is relevant for what it doesn't say. You'll notice it doesn't state a time. Hence there is no time requirement as long as it was put into that new barrel. If you had unlimited funds and liked wasting a lot of money you could make a white bourbon by putting it into the barrel and dumping it right back out. But since you couldn't use that again to make bourbon, why would you throw that kind of money away?

So where does the confusion come from? I think it is two-fold. First, the definition of whiskey in most of the whiskey producing places around the world requires the distillate to be aged for three years. So there's that bit of knowledge mucking things up. Secondly, there is a requirement for "straight whiskey" to be aged for at least two years. The regulation reads as follows: "Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as 'straight'; for example, 'straight bourbon whisky.'" It goes on to describe other types of straight whiskey as well, but that the important part for this discussion.

This one is false.

Corollary to Myth 3

"Bourbon can only be made in Charred, New, American White Oak Barrels."

This is a nit-picky one on my part. It's mostly spouted by those that know a bit about bourbon and have mistaken what happens most often for what is allowed. I listed the definition for bourbon above. Once again, you can see the relevant part is near the end: "stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers." It says charred new oak. It doesn't specify the species or the country of origin. Buffalo Trace recently put out a bourbon aged in French Oak barrels. American white oak works very nicely for barrels and is most commonly used in bourbon making, but that doesn't mean it has to be. I say false.

Myth 4

"Jack Daniels isn't Bourbon"

Just kidding... that would be trolling too hard for this time around. Maybe I'll tackle this one in the future.

1. Charles K. Cowdery, Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (Chicago, IL: Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2004), 28-29.

2. Michael R. Veach, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 24-29.