Whiskeys are made from grain and so is Bourbon. However, the grain in the blend is not the common one and it is made to a unique specification.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a variety of whiskey that uses at least 51% corn in the distillation process. But, oh, how much is compacted into that one dry sentence.
All whiskeys are made from grain, often using barley as a base. The barley is soaked to germinate, then dried and mixed with water and yeast. The liquid is heated and the evaporate flows up through a bent-neck still where it ultimately condenses into another container. The brew is then placed in barrels to age for a few years to make the golden beverage enjoyed by millions.
Using corn makes for quite a difference during this journey from field to mouth.
The name comes from the county in Kentucky formed in 1785 in a shipping region now known for its distilling skills.
One difference is how the barrel is chosen and used. American White Oak is the usual choice, because it lends a chemical called lactone that brings out a flavor recognized around the world. The charred barrels are used only once during the process - this is a legal requirement. But they then go on to be used by makers of fine scotch.
While the legal requirement to be called Bourbon is 51% corn in the mash, most distillers will use between 65-75%. It's that high use of this alternative grain that gives the brew its distinctive flavor. Also, according to law, it must be aged at least two years. But, ten or 25, or even 50 years in the barrel is far from unknown. Nothing is added to artificially color or flavor the end product.
Ironically, one of the brands most associated with Bourbon isn't technically one at all. Jack Daniels, a fine and mellow liquid appreciated by whiskey aficionados worldwide, is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal before being placed in the cask to age. This so-called Lincoln County process removes impurities and imparts a unique taste. But introducing it removes the product from the category that in all other respects it resembles.
Jim Beam, on the other hand, carries that category name proudly on the label. While perhaps the best known Bourbon, it is far from the only fine whiskey of that type. Blanton's, for example, is a reddish amber brew whose color reflects its taste. The citrus tones blend with cloves and caramel to produce an end result that no Jim Beam lover would wisely turn down.
Blanton's is only one of many so-called 'Single Barrel' Bourbons, the name deriving from the fact that each bottle comes from a single barrel of premium charred oak. The result, such as that found in a bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed, is also premium. The latter's mixture of vanilla and peppery tastes is appreciated anywhere fine whiskeys are sampled and that covers a lot of ground, literally. The love of Bourbon has spread as far as Japan.
With the decision to use corn as the base for ethanol fuel, the price of a good Bourbon may rise. But, fortunately, one thing about this spirit will always remain the same: the outstanding taste many generations have come to know and love.