About Straight Bourbon Whiskey

About Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Bourbon Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% corn, be produced in the United States, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and be aged in new charred oak barrels; 'straight' bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years, although in practice virtually all straight whiskies are aged at least four years. Any bourbon, or any other domestic or imported whiskey, for that matter, that has been aged less than four years must contain an age statement on the label. Small Batch Bourbons are bourbons that bottled from a small group of specially selected barrels that are blended together. It should be noted though that each distiller has their own interpretation of what constitutes a "small batch." Single Barrel Bourbon is bourbon from one specifically chosen cask.

The Taste: Flavor descriptors such as toffee, pralines, vanilla, and dried fruit to describe the initial rush of flavors in a good, well-aged bourbon. The charred oak barrels give bourbon a distinctive spicy oak firmness that is unique to American whiskeys.

The first waves of British settlers in North America were a thirsty lot. It is recorded that the Pilgrims chose to make final landfall at Plymouth, Massachusetts, even though their original destination was elsewhere, primarily because they were almost out of beer.

The first locally-made alcoholic beverage was beer, although the limited supply of barley malt was frequently supplemented by such local substitutes as pumpkin pulp. Distilled spirits soon followed, with rum made from imported Caribbean molasses dominating in the northern colonies, and an assortment of fruit brandies in the south.

In the early 1700s a combination of bad economic times and religious unrest against the Established Church in Great Britain set off a great wave of emigration from Scotland and Ireland. These Scots, and the Protestant Scottish settlers from the Northern Irish province of Ulster who came to be known as the "Scotch-Irish" in the new World, brought to North America their religion, their distrust of government control, and their skill at distilling whiskey.

This rush of humanity, augmented by German immigrants of a similar religious and cultural persuasion, passed through the seaboard colonies and settled initially in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and western Virginia. Mostly small farmers, they quickly adapted to growing rye because of its hardiness, and, in the western counties, Native American corn because of its high yields. Grain was awkward to ship to East Coast markets because of the poor roads; so many farmers turned to distilling their crops into whiskey. In Pennsylvania these were primarily Rye whiskies; farther to the west and south Corn whiskies predominated. By the end of the American War of Independence in 1784, the first commercial distilleries had been established in what was then the western Virginia county of Kentucky. From the start they produced corn-based whiskies.

In 1794 the new, cash-strapped Federal government imposed the first federal excise tax on distillers. The farmer-distillers of western Pennsylvania responded violently in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Federal tax agents were assaulted and killed by angry mobs. Order was finally restored when the federal government sent in an army of 15,000 militiamen, led by George Washington, to put down the revolt. The ringleaders were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, but cooler heads prevailed, and after jail time they were pardoned and released.

This situation did provoke a new migration of settlers into the then-western frontier lands of Kentucky and Tennessee. In these new states farmers found ideal corn-growing country and smooth, limestone-filtered water—two of the basic ingredients of bourbon whiskey.

The name "bourbon" comes from a county in eastern Kentucky, which in turn was named for the bourbon kings of France who had aided the American rebels in the Revolutionary War. bourbon County was in the early 19th century a center of whiskey production and transshipping (ironically, at the present time, it is a "dry" county). The local whiskey, made primarily from corn, soon gained a reputation for being particularly smooth because the local distillers aged their products in charred oak casks. The adoption of the "sour mash" grain conversion technique served to further distinguish bourbon from other whiskey styles.

By the 1840s bourbon was recognized and marketed as a distinctive American style of whiskey, although not as a regionally specific spirit. bourbon came to be produced in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia, among other states. The only legal location requirement for calling a whiskey "bourbon" is that it be produced in the United States. Initially bourbon was made in pot stills, but as the century progressed the new column still technology was increasingly adopted. The last old-line pot still plant closed in Pennsylvania in 1992, but the technique was revived in Kentucky in 1995 when the historic Labrot & Graham Distillery was renovated and reopened with a set of new, Scottish-built copper pot stills.

The late 19th century saw the rise of the Temperance Movement, a social phenomenon driven by a potent combination of religious and women’s groups. Temperance societies, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, operated nationally, but were particularly active in the southern states. The notion of temperance soon gave way to a stated desire for outright prohibition, and throughout the rest of the century an assortment of states and counties adopted prohibition for varying lengths of time and degrees of severity. This muddle of legal restrictions played havoc in the bourbon industry, as it interfered with the production and aging of stocks of whiskey.

National Prohibition in 1919 had effects on the bourbon industry beyond shutting down most of the distilleries. Drinking did not stop, of course, and the United States was soon awash in illegal alcohol, much of it of dubious quality. What did change was the American taste in whiskey. Illicit moonshine and imported Canadian whiskeys were lighter in taste and body than bourbon and Rye. The corresponding increase in popularity of white spirits such as Gin and Vodka further altered the marketplace. When Repeal came in 1933, a number of the old distilleries didn’t reopen, and the industry began a slow consolidation that lasted into the early 1990s, at which time there were only 10 distilleries in Kentucky and two in Tennessee.

In the 21st century consumers have a renewed passion for their local spirit. Today, bourbon is highly sought after by people from all walks of life. Perceived shortages have raised prices and created scarcity that has piqued the interest of new enthusiasts and collectors. The recent craft spirits movement has created a boom of production with bourbons now being made all over the country in a wider range of styles than ever before.

Top Picks for Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Doc Swinson’s 15-Yr Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
96 points
$149
Amber color. Aromas of roasted cashews, spice cookies, toffee-coated popcorn, buttercream, pineapple upside down cake, and hints of cedar with a slightly chewy, lively, dryish medium-to-full body and a hot, charming, long dark chocolate, molasses, plum jam, and cinnamon finish. A monster of a Bourbon with a bold, chewy texture and piles of spice; serve on the rocks and pair with a cigar.
Stagg Jr. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
95 points
$49
Amber color. Inviting aromas of dark caramel, cherry lozenge, molasses, candied nuts, caramel-drizzled cherries, hints of espresso, and egg nog with a velvety, vibrant, dryish medium-to-full body and a hot, very complex, very long fine black tea, coconut cream, toasted almonds, condensed milk, and chocolate covered nougat with nuts finish. A seamless Bourbon that invites you to dive right in; high-octane, full flavor, but still maintains an elegant personality.
WELLER Full Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
95 points
$49
Amber color. Aromas and flavors of dried cherry, leather, and ripe peach with a slightly chewy, vibrant, dryish medium-to-full body and a smooth, complex, very long finish that presents notes of sweet tea, apple pie, candied peanuts, honey, and brown sugar buttercream. A complex, fruity, sophisticated Bourbon with a never-ending finish.
Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
95 points
$59
Amber color. Perfumed aromas and flavors of white chocolate, finest vanilla beans, oolong tea with floral honey, and Belgian waffles with a velvety, vibrant, dryish medium-to-full body and a warming, complex, very long finish with touches of coconut cream, hazelnut, and lilac. An elegant, pure Bourbon that sings.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Straight Bourbon Whiskey
95 points
$59
Dark amber color. Aromas and flavors of suede, chocolate-covered toffee, hints of licorice, cherry coulis, and cafe au lait with a slightly chewy, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a warming, massive, long finish displaying notes of key lime custard, almond tart, tobacco, and delicate spices. Elegant, seamless, stunning; this is the one to impress your guests.
Knob Creek 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
95 points
$59
Dark amber color. Aromas of orange flan, cinnamon-raisin swirl bread, flaky croissant with hints of prosciutto, and black pepper with a satiny, crisp, fruity medium body and a warming, complex, medium-long hints of rose, leather, spice cookies, almond biscotti, and tangerine peel finish. A rich, warming Bourbon that pops on the palate with savory nuance; this is one to show off.
Calumet Farm 14-Year-Old Single Rack Black Straight Bourbon Whiskey
95 points
$119
Golden amber color. Creamy aromas of banana custard, whipped cream, brandied cherries, Nilla wafers, toasted coconut, and hints of licorice with a satiny, crisp, dry-yet-fruity light body and a seamless, intricate, medium-long cracked black pepper finish. Delightful silky texture and well-integrated flavors make this a stand out Bourbon for every type of serve.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
94 points
$29
Amber color. Aromas and flavors of dried cherry, hints of apricot cobbler, coffee cake, candied orange peel, black tea, and ginger with a velvety, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a warming, complex, very long finish imparting notes of ripe strawberry, black licorice, caramel corn, and vanilla bean gelato. An expertly crafted, bold, mature Bourbon that jumps from the glass; sure to satisfy any lover of the category.
HEAVEN HILL 7 Year Old Bottled-In-Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey
94 points
$39
Golden amber color. Aromas of fine black tea, cinnamon buttercream, and toffee popcorn with a satiny, vibrant, dryish light-to-medium body and a seamless, delightful, medium-length chocolate and roasted walnuts finish. A sophisticated, dry and chocolatey Bourbon for contemplative sipping.
HENRY MCKENNA 10 Year Old Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey
94 points
$49
Amber color. Aromas and flavors of spiced orange tea, banana custard, pecan praline, and caramel on peanuts with a satiny, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium body and an effortless, complex, medium-long finish with notes of cinnamon-raisin cookies, chocolate-dipped pretzels, and nougat. A delicious, concentrated, nutty Bourbon that will play well in stirred cocktails.