The Geography of Bourbon

A long time ago, a friend gifted me with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Black Label Sour Mash Whiskey. I must not have treated this friend very well, as this whiskey tastes like poison. Of course, it is a poison, destroying my liver. I’m sure my liver has since recovered. My memories of this foul concoction persist, however.

As I drank the bottle, it did get me to thinking. How do people drink this putrescence straight? I ruined Coke after Coke, using it to dilute the taste. My neighbor across the street hipped me to the fact the, in the case of JD, Dr. Pepper works better. After a little taste-testing, a 3:1 ratio of Dr. Pepper to JD reduced the Retch Factor significantly. Thanks to Dr. Pepper, I was able to finish the bottle. Well, I guess, “thanks.” The combination of the two I call, “Dr. Jack.” I won’t waste my money on JD. Lesson learned.
And I also thought about this: what is the difference between Whiskey and Bourbon? Is it just a name thing, or is there a real, ingredient, process, content difference?
The short answer is: yes, there is a difference between Whiskey and Bourbon.
Whiskey” comes from Ireland, or perhaps, Scotland. We aren’t sure. The process of making whiskey was probably brought to Ireland and Britain from the Middle East in the 8th or 9th century, by Christian monks. 
As a side note, Christians seem to be responsible for the early development of whiskey. Later, others would further contribute to the history of the beverage. Once Kentucky became involved, Baptists would have a hand in creating Bourbon.
Whiskey” represents any mixture of grains, fermented, distilled, blended, and aged, in barrels – usually oak barrels. Typically, whiskey can be up to 160 proof (80% alcohol content). 
Scotch Whiskey, by law, must be bottled in Scotland.
Irish Whiskey, by law, must be bottled in Ireland.
Japanese Whiskies are available in Japan, and, I would guess, must be bottled there, as well.
Canadian Whiskey, by law, must be bottled in Canada. Canadian whiskies are usually rye based, rather than barley.
Now that the definition is covered, how does bourbon fall into this mess?
Bourbon” is a uniquely American beverage, and represents another member of the whiskey family. Bourbon mash is comprised of at least 51% and not more than 79% corn mash, must be aged at least 2 years in oak barrels. Bourbon is derived from the name of Bourbon County, Kentucky. It should be noted, however, that when this designation was made, Bourbon County was much larger then than today. The American Territory was still young in those days, and over time, the territory would be carved into the present counties we have today.
About 95% of bourbon available today comes from Kentucky.
The bottle of sour mash whiskey I drank came from Lynchburg, Tennessee. I’d like to give it back, if I could. But, then, I would not have learned some valuable lessons.

3 thoughts on “The Geography of Bourbon

  1. >That makes a lot more sense. Every other kind of whiskey is named after the place it is distilled. Why wouldn’t bourbon whiskey be? Thanks for clearing that up.I will never stop being amazed at how convincing people can be even when they are wrong. I heard that (about the limestone deposits) from a college geology professor during class.


  2. >There was a notable omission from my article, and that has to do with the geography of Bourbon County, Kentucky.At the time whiskey was being made in Kentucky, Bourbon County was huge. In fact, Bourbon County was more like a territory that included parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, and maybe Ohio.We are talking about 1785 or thereabouts and the territory west of the Allegheny was not carved up to the extent it is today. Thusly, the county of Bourbon in Kentucky doe not represent the same area as that 220 years ago.Bourbon derives its name from the French House of Bourbon, a royal family who settled in the area, and from which the county takes its name. Whiskey was loaded onto boats on the Ohio River and sent down to Louisiana. When the whiskey arrived, and people tried it, they wanted to know where it came from. The reply was, “from Bourbon.”As corn was more available than rye or barley, it was used for the mash process. I guess somewhere along the way someone decided to formalize the formula: no less than 51% corn mash.


  3. >I am under the impression that the difference between bourbon and whiskey is that limestone deposits filter Kentucky’s water table. The limestone removes iron and adds calcium, giving Kentucky’s water supply a distinct taste that distinguishes bourbon from other whiskey. It is also rumored that the calcium in Kentucky’s water is responsible for Kentucky’s high quality race horses.


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