Bourbon may seem like a strange name for a whiskey, especially when compared to other global whisky names. Whisky from Canada is called Canadian Whisky, and whiskey from Ireland is called Irish Whiskey. So where did bourbon get this unique name, and why is it different from other whiskeys? Here is a short history of this notable drink.
The name Bourbon has a history that dates back to French royalty. While there are many theories about how Bourbon whiskey received its name, many of them are just plain wrong. For instance, a popular theory is that Bourbon was first distilled in Bourbon County, Kentucky and thus received this place name. However, whiskey was made outside of Bourbon County originally, making this theory rubbish. Bourbon County, however, was home to the major Ohio river port from whence Bourbon was shipped throughout the United States and eventually the world. This, likely, was the origin of the name.
No one would make a fuss over Bourbon’s name if it did not represent a superior product. Bourbon whiskey is made primarily from corn, a definite diversion from European whisky making processes. It is matured in new, charred oak barrels that contribute a smoky and caramel-rich flavor and color. It can legally be no more than 80% ABV and must be made in the United States, although Kentucky is still the major producer of the drink.
Bourbon is suitable for drinking neat, like other high quality whiskeys. However, it is often used in recipes and mixed drinks as well. The flavors in Bourbon are unique even among whiskies of similar age. It tends to have a predominance of sweet, rich whiskey flavors such as caramel, toffee, vanilla, molasses, and roasted nuts. These can be traced to the charring of the new oak barrels. This process caramelizes the sugars natural to the oak wood and gives it that subtle sweetness.
The American Prohibition made bourbon production temporarily illegal, although production continued in many cases behind closed doors. Since then, the greatest challenge to the industry was the devaluation of whisky/whiskey in the early eighties. Many brands have bounced back and are now seeing a period of great success. High end bourbons are now an industry worth more than $500 million, with 2.2 million cases produced in the United States.
Whiskey makes up the great majority of American spirits exports, which come to more than $1 billion every year. The market for bourbon, especially high quality bourbon, seems to be increasing sharply. The product is now sold in more than 100 countries throughout the globe. The major markets for bourbon include Germany, Australia, Canada and, ironically, the United Kingdom, home to Scotch whisky. However, emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America soon may become the major importers of this all American product.
Bourbon is a drink made according to high standards with a long history. It is an essential part of any whiskey lover’s alcohol collection.