In our Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
Ask the Expert: Is it true that all bourbon has to be made in Kentucky?
In a word: no. That’s a common misconception, and it stems from the fact that the traditional powerhouses all reside in Kentucky, and many of them have histories stretching back generations if not centuries in the Bluegrass State. Further, before the craft distilling boom of the past decade, there were hardly any producers outside of Kentucky even though there was no legislation barring it.
[As an aside, if you really want to dive into bourbon’s history and how it came to be legally defined, I highly recommend checking out Fred Minnick’s book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.]
Even so, about 95% of the bourbon produced in the United States still comes from Kentucky. The firepower of the major distilleries there including Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and on down the line, is never going to be matched, no matter how many thousands of small shops open up from coast to coast.
More major investments are being made in Kentucky too. Bulleit’s distillery is now operational, Castle & Key has rejuvenated the Old Taylor Distillery, and large scale projects such as the Bardstown Bourbon Company and the Angel’s Envy Distillery, are just a few which have either recently been completed or soon will be.
So if bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, what does bourbon have to be?
Bourbon absolutely does have to be made in the United States. It has to be aged, and aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no minimum aging requirement, although to be known as a straight bourbon, the minimum aging requirement is then two years, and the bourbon cannot have any added coloring or flavoring.
Bourbon has to be made from a mash bill consisting of at least 51% corn. The rest of that mash bill is then most commonly a combination of rye and malted barley, although it may be wheat and malted barley, a combination of all four grains, or increasingly, any number of alternative grains, as long as corn has a majority share.
If you’re interested in exploring some of the best bourbon made outside of Kentucky, there are plenty of good places to start. A few producers who I continue to point to and recommend include Wyoming Whiskey, FEW Spirits (Illinois), Dry Fly Distilling (Washington), A. Smith Bowman Distillery (Virginia), Balcones Distilling (Texas), and Hillrock Estate (New York). But there’s a huge range of others out there, and probably a few in your home state, too.
Wait, what about Jack Daniel’s? It’s made in Tennessee, not Kentucky… but is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon? Yes, it is, although they call themselves a Tennessee whiskey. Long story short, they meet all the requirements of being a bourbon, but are further specified by additional requirements in production. It’s a discussion for another day, so if you want that cleared up, go ahead and ask me at @ManTalkFood with #AskTheExpert.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.