Here’s the thing about heritage months–they’re established by law. Elected officials have to feel so much passion about an issue that they write or sponsor legislation to devote an entire month to it. When someone asks how much America loves bourbon, the answer is: enough to dedicate the month of September to it.
If you’ve been of drinking age for more than a decade, you may have noticed a few changes on your liquor store’s shelves or at the back bar of your favorite watering hole. Brands of spirits have not only multiplied, they’ve improved. Countless exceptional products have launched in the past few decades. Bless the grit of gin drinkers in the ‘90s.
The exception to this improvement is bourbon. Its long history centers on careful distillation from crafted, often secret recipes. Before, during, and after prohibition, distillers worked hard to make unique spirits. The smoothest bourbon of forty years ago can compete with the smoothest bourbon today.
Bourbon is our Native Spirit. No, really–there’s a 1964 bill declaring it America’s Native Spirit. If you order a whiskey anywhere else in the world, you’ll get either Scotch or Canadian whisky.
There’s more to it than just geography. To be called a bourbon, it must be distilled in the U.S. And bourbon is hearty, corn-fed Americana. Bourbon recipes must have at least 50 percent corn. It makes a sweeter, more approachable, more affable spirit than whisky or Scotch. Whether that also describes the more ephemeral American spirit is a matter of opinion.
The Charming History of Whiskey Month
Although bourbon is a long-standing source of American pride, it took the establishment until 2007 to institute National Bourbon Heritage Month. Jim Bunning, a Senator from Kentucky, sponsored the resolution. No surprise, as he hailed from the bourbon capital of the world. In the bill, Bunning describes his state as having a core of “heritage, tradition, and deep-rooted legacy” surrounding bourbon production.
It’s easy to get swept up in the poetry of Bunning’s reverence for bourbon distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky. When you pour a few fingers of Elijah Craig into a rocks glass, you might even feel a swell of American pride. Kentucky knows how to make the smoothest bourbon.
But Bunning’s bill is a bit of revisionist history. Sure, it expands on the 1964 Native Spirit bill. But patriotism wasn’t the motivation for that original bit of legislation. A bootlegger and gangster, Lewis Rosenstiel, catapulted it into existence. He was desperate to unload a surplus of booze before taxes bankrupted him. So Rosenstiel formed the Bourbon Institute lobbying group. Their sole mission was to designate bourbon a uniquely American product. The appointment would increase the spirit’s marketability around the world.
Rosenstiel got to work lobbying worldwide. He advertised bourbon in Europe and sent cases of his product to U.S. embassies in dozens of countries. Meanwhile, the Bourbon Institute developed advertising stateside. They set out to convince Americans to take part in a “great American tradition.” People began to order bourbon instead of gin.
Needless to say, it worked. Congress declared bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States.” A pretty dry way to say if the U.S. doesn’t make it, it’s not bourbon. But that piece of legislation lit a long fuse of American pride that would erupt into Bourbon Heritage Month forty years later.
Bourbon For Beginners
Why’s bourbon so distinctive? Why have National Bourbon Day (which is, incongruously, in June) and heritage months dedicated to the stuff? We’ll break it down for you bourbon beginners.
Bourbon, like tequila, Scotch, or sake, reflects where it’s made. While all whisk(e)y distills from grain, the grain depends on the country, state, or region. Scotch, for example, uses primarily malted grains like barley and wheat with some corn. Canadian whiskey uses a lot of flavorful rye. Irish whiskey uses both malted barley and unmalted grains. And what do we have in surplus here in the states? Corn!
So, all bourbon has at least 50 percent corn. Some distillers throw caution to the wind and create “high corn” products, like Buffalo Trace’s Old Charter. Or they go wild like the New York distillery Tuthilltown Spirits, whose Bright Lights, Big Bourbon is a whopping 95 percent corn. This love of corn doesn’t mean all bourbon tastes the same, though. Distillers use rye, wheat, and barley to make up the rest of the mash bill, leading to a diverse and evolving spirit.
More regulations govern what we, even within the U.S., can call bourbon. It must age for at least two years, in a new, charred, American oak barrel. It also has to be less than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol) going into the barrel, and over 80 proof going into the bottle.
Part of what makes bourbon so reliable is that the only allowed additive is water. Whiskey is unregulated. Distillers and bottlers can add caramel color and flavor to make it look and taste better.
Bourbon production requires craft. Even when it’s young and rambunctious, it has a solid foundation. In fact, we recommend keeping a cheaper whiskey in a decanter to let it breathe for a few days. Chances are you’ll find it approachable, even if it’s not the best sipping whiskey.
Heritage Month in the Bourbon Capital of the World
Want to celebrate Bourbon Heritage Month the right way? Head to the bourbon capital of the world, Bardstown, Kentucky. Long before the 2007 bill, Kentuckians were cracking casks in tribute to their beloved hometown spirit.
Despite rumors, bourbon doesn’t have to come from the bourbon capital of the world, Kentucky. But 95 percent of what the world consumes does. The Bluegrass State is home to 77 distilleries (out of a jaw-dropping 2,000 in the U.S.). It’s a mixture of conglomerates–Brown Forman, Sazerac, Kirin, etc.–and local families who own the distilleries, all with the same goal: to make heritage products.
Looking for epic gift ideas for men? You can clinch your reputation as “best [son, brother, best man, best friend] ever” with a Kentucky Bourbon Trail trip to Bardstown. Tour distilleries, sample products, and get a hands-on experience learning about America’s heritage spirit. And the best time of year to visit is during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Every year (usually during National Bourbon Heritage Month), the town cracks casks for a full weekend of events and celebrations centered on bourbon.
Celebrating Heritage Month with Bourbon
A weekend getaway in the bourbon capital of the world isn’t necessary to celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month, though. Instead, join us in splashing some of the best sipping whiskey into a rocks glass and toasting bourbon distillers’ rowdy history. These were a group of people so dedicated to drinking (and drinking well) that they took to politics to secure their place in America’s bars.
If you want to take a deep dive into the history of distilleries, we’ve reviewed popular brands for the best sipping whiskeys to conquer. Maybe a great price point is more important to you than premier labels. We’ve got you covered. There’s no need to feel shut out from celebrating Bourbon Heritage Month.
Decant your bourbon! Especially your mid-range purchases. If the label’s nothing to brag about, elevate your home bar experience with a classic decanter. Plus, exposing a fiery bourbon to air for a few days mellows out strong ethanol notes and reveals subtle flavors.
Also, keep a few key ingredients on your home bar–sugar cubes and Angostura Aromatic Bitters. They’re all you need for an Old Fashioned recipe. It’s the first classic cocktail that should be in your home bartending repertoire. And it’s exquisitely simple to make:
- Place 1-3 sugar cubes in the bottom of a sturdy rocks glass
- Add 4-6 dashes of aromatic bitters, to soak the sugar cubes
- Muddle sugar and bitters together, until sugar dissolves
- Add 2 ounces bourbon
Use a giant ice cube and stir for 15-20 seconds to chill and dilute the cocktail. Then sit back and toast to National Bourbon Heritage Month.
Best Sipping Whiskey for September
Good bourbon is all about preference. If you’re new to bourbons and whiskey, take some time to try different brands and different products. While more time spent in a barrel is always better, it’s also more expensive. You could do a few bourbon flights at home for insight into your tastes. Maybe you love lots of rye. Or perhaps you’re a corn fanatic. It might be the case that you’re a fan of wheated bourbons like Maker’s Mark.
If there’s a top-shelf product you love, investigate the distiller’s other products: chances are, they bottle the same mash bill with less time spent in the barrel. It’ll be all the things you love–with a little less polish, but at a much more approachable price point.