“In Kentucky, there are more barrels of bourbon than people.”
I have a framed photo print of a warehouse of bourbon barrels accompanied by this quote in my dining room. According to the website Kentucky for Kentucky (which sells a variety of bourbon-themed goods and apparel), this statement isn’t just an adage people in Kentucky say to make themselves feel superior to California wine country kids – it’s a verifiable fact. The bourbon barrel count in the Bluegrass State hovers at around 4.7 million. The current population of the Kentucky, per the last census numbers, comes in at 4.3 million. So it’s clear that bourbon is pretty important to the economy and culture of Kentucky.
I’ve encountered many consumers of alcohol who have no idea what bourbon actually is or how it is different from whiskey. Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Whiskey is a spirit made all over the world from grain mash. In mashing, a mix of grains (barley, corn, rye, and wheat) are combined with water and heated. Some chemistry magic happens – enzymes break down starch in the mash into sugars – to create wort. The wort is then fermented with brewing yeast to produce alcohol (in more chemistry magic, sugars become ethyl alcohol during the fermentation process). The next step is distillation, which is a chemical separation process that takes place in a device called a still. The still heats the liquid and instigates a vaporization –> condensation cycle. Alcohol products from the middle of the distillation process are collected and matured in a cask, typically for several years. During the aging process, some of the alcohol vapor escapes from the porous barrel (this evolved vapor represents about a 2% mass loss per year and is commonly referred to as the “angel’s share” – Gabriel needs his liquor too, y’all). One interesting note about the whiskey making process is that whiskey tends to take on the characteristics of the environment it is aged in. In food, this concept is known as terroir (French for “soil”). What it means for you as a consumer is that the location of the aging impacts the taste of the final product. Whiskey aged in the Scottish highlands will taste different than whiskey aged in Japan (which is also a major consumer and manufacturer of the drink), as the temperature, humidity, and overall environment the products originated from are quite different. Other offerings that tend to be associated with terroir are vegetables and wine.
There are some important distinctions between bourbon and whisky. Bourbon, per the Congressional definition of 1964 (yes, really) must be made from at least 51% corn. It must also be stored in a container of charred oak for aging. There is no minimum duration requirement for aging, but longer is better (interestingly, the European Union imposes a 3 year minimum requirement for a product to be considered whisky).
The history of bourbon begins with the immigration of the Scots-Irish to the Appalachian regions of Kentucky. These hardy and resilient people brought with them a rich tradition of whiskey-making (“Immigrants, we get the job done“). The precise origin of bourbon is not known, but the invention of bourbon as a sub-type of whiskey is sometimes attributed to a Scottish immigrant, distiller, and Baptist minister (oh boy!) named Elijah Craig. Jacob Spears, another distiller in Bourbon County Kentucky, subsequently began to sell a product of “bourbon whiskey.” Bourbon proliferated throughout the state, with numerous distilleries and products springing up until the Prohibition era. Per the aforementioned Congressional act of 1964, bourbon was declared a unique product of the United States (meaning it can only be made within the US borders). So if someone tries to sell you bourbon made outside of the US borders, don’t buy it (or maybe buy it – there’s a chance it might be good — just don’t tell Congress about it). One interesting note is that Tennessee Whiskey (not only a country song, but an actual drink) technically meets the criteria for bourbon classification based on composition and cask aging, but is instead marketed as another sub-type of whiskey (the charcoal filtering process is what makes it unique). Despite growing up in Kentucky, I did not know most of the information written above until today and it was mostly quelled from Wikipedia. As Michael Scott says, Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, so you know you’re getting the best possible information.
But what can Kentucky bourbon do for you? I say “Kentucky bourbon” because I don’t think as a native Kentuckian I am permitted to acknowledge bourbons from other states as representatives of the brand. 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, so the designation “Kentucky Bourbon” excludes only 5% of all bourbons (and let’s be honest, those bourbons probably aren’t worth mentioning anyway). By definition bourbon is at least 80% alcohol. If you’re drinking it, you’re probably doing it in small doses. Sip. Remember sipping is your friend. But what bourbon is really, really good for, as I’ve discovered in my adult life, is cooking. I don’t cook often because it is still a pretty nascent skill for me, but when I do cook for holidays I like to make things that involve bourbon. I’ve also found that bourbon-laced treats are always a great hit at any holiday get together you may be asked to attend and/or host this season. Here are a few bourbon-infused recipes I would recommend for your holiday baking this year:
- Bourbon pecan pie. I found this recipe in Southern Living’s Thanksgiving issue a few years ago and it’s a major keeper. For those of us whose cooking skills can best be summarized as “combine ingredients in a pot on the stove and wait until something boils”, skip the crust recipe and just buy one at a farmer’s market or grocery store. The key to this one is sourcing good ingredients – focus on the pecans (if you live in the south, you’ve made a good choice and should have ready access to good pecans) and the bourbon. The actual recipe is a Tennessee whiskey pie (which, as we’ve established, is technically bourbon by definition), but we always use Kentucky bourbon. Woodford Reserve is the go-to (and the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby), but any of the other flagship Kentucky bourbons (Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Four Roses) will do in a pinch. Use Pappy van Winkel if you’re idly rich and don’t care, like Princess Margaret on season 3 of The Crown. I’ll come eat pie with you at your private island in the Caribbean. I can make this one (sans crust), so it clearly doesn’t have a very high degree of difficulty. I did burn my arm one year at Christmas while making this pie, put Neosporin on it, and then had an allergic reaction to neomycin which required steroids, but hopefully you will avoid that fate.*
*I’m Lucille Ball in the kitchen.
- Bourbon ice cream. I’m a Jeni’s Ice Cream devotee and every winter Jeni’s offers up “Middle West Whiskey and Pecans”, which is my view is the company’s best holiday seasonal flavor. While Jeni’s is now available in Publix stores (and currently on sale this week, if you want to run out and stock up), Whiskey and Pecans is not a flavor that is currently available in the grocery. So if you want this one and don’t live close to a Jeni’s scoop shop, you’ll need to make it at home. I’m not much of an ice cream maker, but my husband is exceptionally skilled in this area and every year manages to reproduce this one to perfection.* We substitute bourbon for whiskey, of course. It’s also great accompaniment to the pie recipe above. The full recipe is in Jeni Britton Bauer’s book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, but can also be found here. The salted, buttered pecans in this recipe are also great as a stand-alone snack. *Marry for love, but also for food.
- Bourbon balls (chocolate covered candy made with bourbon) are a staple of many a Kentucky church cookbook, although the old ladies who are most skilled at making them might be sending their relatives to the store to buy their bourbon for them (not naming anyone specifically, but perhaps speaking form experience). These are tricky and it might take several attempts to get a good batch. The best tip is to keep the sugary mixture for the balls as cold as possible – as you make one set of ten, immediately refrigerate them again until it is time to dip them into the chocolate. Sometimes a short stint in the freezer for a minute or two helps them maintain their form and consistency for dipping as well. Beware – these have a strong bourbon flavor, particularly if you put extra bourbon in them (surprise, party attendees!)
- I recently came across a Kentucky bourbon cake from the Tortuga company, which is the primary purveyor of pre-packaged rum cakes. A Kentucky Bourbon cake basically has the same ingredients as a rum cake, but uses bourbon as the liquor additive of choice. I can’t vouch for this particular recipe, but any boozy cake is bound to be a hit. On a related note, I was at a beauty salon in Kentucky when I was home a few years ago (it’s literally Steel Magnolias) and the hair stylists were talking with an older lady there about their favorite bourbon-infused recipes. Bourbon cake came up. The older lady said she usually made these cakes as gifts. but one of her cousins was a staunch Southern Baptist and wouldn’t consume anything with bourbon in it. She remarked this position was silly because most of the bourbon probably bakes off. “What a shame”, she went on, because “a cake with bourbon in it is about better than any other present.” I don’t really disagree.
The best way to drink bourbon (and the merits of various bourbon brands) could easily comprise another blog post, but I recommend a mix of 1 oz bourbon and 5 oz Cherry Ale-8 (a truly world-class Kentucky craft soda). Happy Holidays!!