It’s the stuff of cowboy movies and saloon bars. It’s what noir detectives keep in their desk drawer. It’s was the tipple of choice for Sinatra and his pack and the drink that fueled Madison Avenue in its heyday. It’s defiantly masculine. But - move over Scotland - it’s not whiskey. It’s close, but by law bourbon - the booze that built America - must be at least 51% corn, distilled at less than 160 proof and aged for at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels. It’s these barrels which are often then bought to mature the other stuff north of the border.
What’s more, bourbon must be made in the United States - something defined by an act of Congress 55 years ago this year. Call your foreign version what you like, but you cannot call it bourbon - even though the name, by various turns, has its origins in the 18th-century France. Early American colonists - in thanks to the French royal family, the House of Bourbon, for its assistance in the fight against the British - named a vast area of Kentucky ‘Bourbon County’, an area that, then and now, just happened to be the centre for whiskey-making. Bourbon came to be a generic name for any whiskey out of the region and, later, out of just about anywhere on the Continent.
There’s little that’s generic about the product today though, as drinkers are slowly discovering. Sales in the US are up around 7% year on year and in the UK are rising around 14%, with predictions having it that bourbon will be the fastest growing spirit worldwide within the next four years. Indeed, bourbon has gone through an image reappraisal - from rough and ready to connoisseur’s liquor-of-choice - of the kind that has seen Scotch lose some of its fuddy-duddiness, with a concomitant increase in understanding too. Bourbon is no longer automatically drowned in cola. And, if it’s mixer-free, drinking has moved on from shot to sip.
Sure, there’s been some marketing spin - time was when you couldn’t buy a bourbon in a presentation box, but the industry has now taken its lead from the Highlands on that score - and the Japanese have certainly given the market a shot in the arm by extending their otaku interest from Scotch to bourbon. But the drink - which saw many of its historic makers shut down by prohibition in 1920 yet never recover when the law was repealed in 1933 - has largely been rescued by its being taken up as part of the last decade’s great American craft revival, which subsequently saw the launch of small batch premium versions. Like homegrown jeans brands and watchmakers, beers and leather-goods, bourbon has got Stars ‘n’ Stripes cool.
Some 50 have been launched, or relaunched, over the last decade - from Bulleit to W. L. Weller, Heaven’s Hill to King’s County, from the pricey if esteemed Michter’s to the wonderfully named Pappy Van Winkle - each with its own balance of more or less rye (the more the bitter) and wheat (the more the sweeter). Bourbon buffs are even using language more typically heard rhapsodising the subtle aromas and gastronomic delights of wines to describe these new bourbons: Basil Hayden’s is said to have hints of tea and peppermint, Baker’s of toasted nuts and vanilla, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof notes of black pepper and butterscotch...