By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
In my last column, we learned a little bit of vanilla history. Part of that history involved some speculation on my part about the origins of the name “bourbon vanilla.” Did it have a connection to Bourbon County, Kentucky? Did it allude to the flavor of American oak barrels that have a distinct vanilla flavor? In any case, it made me think of bourbon rather than vanilla.
With their rich history, we tend to think of the great, single malt scotches of Scotland as being several hundred, if not thousands of years old. But this is not the case. Glenturret, Scotland’s oldest distillery, established in 1775, is a youthful 243 years old. A mere eight years later in 1783, Evan Williams opened America’s first commercial bourbon distillery in Kentucky. That bourbon still bears his name today.
As with any brown spirit such as scotch, bourbon, or whiskey, the initial preparation is fundamentally identical to beer. Single malt scotch, whiskey, and Canadian whiskey are all made with barley, and in the case of rye whiskey, some portion of the grains are rye. In the case of bourbon, at least 51 percent of the recipe must, by law, be corn; though most bourbons today contain no less than 70 percent.
A mash is created with hot water and malted grain or corn. Then it is rinsed, or sparged, to collect a sweet, malty flavored liquor, called wort. Next it’s transferred to a kettle where it is boiled, chilled, and fermented, creating a malty beverage of, on average, nine percent alcohol.
Now comes the distillation. Simply put, distillation is the process of separating alcohol from water and impurities by heating the liquid to, depending on the distiller’s recipe, somewhere in the high 170 degree range. The alcohol evaporates, turns to steam as it rises, collects on the interior sides of the still, turns back to liquid as it cools, and runs off to be collected independently of the impure liquid in the bottom of the tank.
In the case of bourbon, the clear liquid is transferred to new American oak barrels. The barrels are charred to impart flavor and contribute to its eventual brown color. By law, new barrels must be used with each fresh batch of bourbon. Though used bourbon barrels contribute virtually nothing to a second batch of bourbon, the barrels are sought after around the world for a plethora of uses: coffee beans, beer-making, maple syrup, tea, and reducing them to chips to smoke salmon.
Today, bourbon has made every bit the comeback in America that whiskey and beer have enjoyed. It has taken a while to recover from prohibition, but bourbon, which is not a Kentucky appellation, is now distilled in all 50 states and Washington D.C.
But the corn-based elixir is still king in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, where 95 percent of all bourbon comes from. As I write this, there are no less than 5.3 million barrels comfortably aging throughout the state—almost one million more than there are residents.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, we can’t claim apple pie, fireworks, hot dogs, or even barbecue as our own. But bourbon, America’s native spirit, as declared by congress in 1964, is born and raised right here in the red white and blue.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.