Missouri recently joined the ranks of Kentucky and Tennessee with a new measure that declares specific rules for its own style of whiskey – in this case, bourbon.
According to House Bill 266, signed on July 11, 2019, which went into effect on Aug. 28, 2019, any whiskey labeled as Missouri bourbon must not only meet the federal standards for bourbon but must also be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in the state. During the aging process, Missouri bourbon must be kept in charred white oak barrels that have been grown and manufactured here – the only place on the planet with this requirement – and as of Jan. 1, 2020, it must be made with corn grown exclusively within the state.
Bourbon warms the soul. Sweetly smoky and complex, its level of sophistication calls to mind bars of dark wood, classic movies and conversations that stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Behind that image, however, lurk some very stringent rules, which bourbon has to abide by to maintain its pedigree.
- On May 4, 1964, the United States Congress declared bourbon whiskey “a distinctive product of the U.S.” – in other words, if it’s bourbon, it was made here. By law, bourbon must be made of a grain mash that contains at least 51 percent corn, and then other grains such as rye, malted barley and wheat can be added. Additives to enhance the color or the flavor profile need not apply: Water is the only other ingredient allowed in the spirit.
- Bourbon cannot enter the barrel at more than 62.5 percent ABV (125 proof) – since bourbon increases in proof as it ages, some distilleries choose to barrel it at a lower proof than that. When it’s bottled, it cannot be less than 40 percent ABV (80 proof) or more than 80 percent ABV (160 proof). Most craft bourbons hover around 45 percent ABV.
As long as bourbon is barreled correctly, there is no real requirement for how long it’s aged, with two exceptions: Straight bourbon whiskey must be aged for a minimum of two years, and bottled-in-bond bourbons must be aged for a minimum of four years. That said, most bourbons are aged for five to 12 years.
- Although bourbon can be produced in any of the 50 states, the vast majority comes from Kentucky, where the state’s limestone geology filters iron out of the water, turning it into sweet-tasting mineral water that is a key ingredient in its bourbon. With more than 60 distilleries and approximately 95 percent of the bourbon market under its belt, Kentucky doesn’t allow for much competition. Tennessee and Missouri have made moves to get in on the game, however, with each state setting its own standards for locally made bourbon. For example, in Tennessee, the Lincoln County Process dictates that almost all bourbon is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before entering casks for aging.
To love bourbon is to appreciate its nuanced flavor – the delicate dance of top notes and undercurrents. The use of different grains – besides the mandated amount of corn – adds flavor and texture to bourbon, giving each its own personality, but the spirit is further defined by these three main styles.
Traditional bourbon boasts a classic flavor with just enough bite to keep things interesting. Its balance of sweet and smoky notes pleases most palates.
Known for its spicy kick, high-rye bourbon has an edge to it, which complements the sweetness of the corn.
Wheated bourbon is smooth. A good introductory whiskey – and great for adding to recipes that don’t call for an overpowering flavor of bourbon – it offers muted spice and a rounded texture that you’ll want to burrow into.
Homemade tea syrup and tart cherry juice bring the flavor to this refreshing sipper.
The bourbon-making process requires a great deal of science; while we can’t cover every detail, here’s a quick rundown of how bourbon gets into that bottle behind the bar.
1. FIRST, THE GRAIN. Choosing and preparing grain for the mash bill is a critical first step in the process, as the signature mixture gives each bourbon its character. Grains are selected, crushed, ground into a fine flour and stored separately.
2. THEN THE WATER. Adding water to the prepared grains moves starches and sugars around, developing them prior to cooking.
3. COOK, COOL, COMBINE. Each grain – corn, rye, barley and so on – has an optimal cooking time and temperature, which is why they’re stored separately. Once cooked, they’re cooled to approximately 77°F to 86°F and finally combined.
4. FERMENTATION. The mash is put into a large vat – appropriately called a fermenter – along with yeast. The mixture that results from this fermentation period clocks in at approximately 9 percent ABV.
5. DISTILLATION. Let the magic begin! The fermented mixture is transferred to a column still for distillation. As it distills, the alcohol vapors rise to the top of the tall, cylindrical tank and the mash settles on the bottom. The vapor is whisked away into a copper pot called a doubler, which converts it back into a liquid (science!). The liquid – called “white dog” – is raw whiskey. The leftover mash, called stillage, is converted into sour mash.
6. DO THE MASH. The raw whiskey and the sour mash are combined, along with more water to control the pH level of the mixture.
7. A BARREL OF FUN. This is what you think of when you think of the bourbon-making process: enormous oak barrels, layered floor-to-ceiling, aging your favorite spirit. In the past, barrels were stored in warehouses – where the spirit would mature differently depending on its position in the warehouse – and rotated regularly. Today, most distilleries no longer rotate but mix barrels from different positions in the warehouse before bottling.
8. BOTTLE IT UP. Selected barrels are brought to the bottling line by truck and emptied over filters – a sieve catches any pieces that might have broken away from the barrel walls during maturation. The bourbon is then pumped into a storage vat and fed to the bottling line from there. The bottles are sealed, labeled and, finally, distributed. Cheers to that!