Get schooled on whiskey and bourbon from the industry’s most famous names.
Is it whiskey or whisky? What exactly is a bourbon? Doesn’t it have to be made in Kentucky, and how is, or isn’t, Tennessee whiskey actually a bourbon itself? There’s plenty of confusion and even a healthy dose of myth surrounding whiskey and all of its iterations, but the American Whiskey Trail through Kentucky and Tennessee, with a surprising gateway point in Virginia at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where whiskey has been distilled since the former president became one of the nation’s largest producers in 1799, will help you uncover the tasty truth. It’s a sprawling trail you could easily spend a couple of weeks exploring, so you probably won’t hit every stop along the way, but here’s a little cheat sheet from some of the most important players in the industry with the spirited answers to your top whiskey and bourbon questions.
Why is whiskey sometimes spelled with an “e” and other times not?
Jackie Zykan, Master Taster, Old Forester Whisky
Penny, the show-stopping copper still.
Old Forester spells whiskey without the “e” because the Brown family is of Scottish heritage and Scotch whiskey is spelled without the “e.” When we talk about Whiskey Row, though, we use the “e” because it refers to American whiskey/bourbon, which is always spelled with an “e.” Remember, if the country has an “e” in the name, so does the whiskey.
Does bourbon have to be made in Kentucky?
Denny Potter, Master Distiller, Maker’s Mark
All of the water used to craft Maker’s Mark Bourbon comes from its own water source, which includes … [+]
Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be exclusively made in Kentucky. To be considered bourbon, a whisky must be produced in the United States (there are excellent bourbons being crafted all around the country right now) and follow a few other rules and regulations. With that said, about 95% of bourbon is, in fact, produced in Kentucky due to the state’s history, climate and geology. Maker’s Mark is a great example of Kentucky bourbon; at our distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, we use natural resources to achieve our taste vision, and that’s especially true when it comes to the quality of our water source. To our knowledge, Maker’s Mark is the only bourbon distillery that sources all of its water onsite, doing so from its two spring-fed lakes containing pure calcium and magnesium-rich water. The lakes sit on a limestone shelf that helps purify the water by filtering out iron, thus creating a higher quality water to produce Maker’s Mark’s sour mash and contribute to our bourbon’s unique flavor profile. We’ve even gone so far as to purchase the entire watershed that supplies all the water that comes to our distillery, allowing us to completely control the quality of water that goes into our bourbon. Fundamentally, we’re able to produce every drop of Maker’s Mark at our distillery in Loretto, Kentucky—something that we’re extremely proud of.
What exactly makes a whiskey a bourbon?
Bruce Russell, National Brand Ambassador, Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey Visitor Center
There are many factors that make bourbon a special spirit. The integrity of bourbon is safeguarded by strict rules and regulations for production that protect the craft, quality and its character. Here are a few key of the requirements that make bourbon, well, bourbon!
- Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, which creates a sweeter flavor profile.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
- Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
- No artificial colorings or flavorings can be added to Bourbon.
- Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
- Only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon.
The calling card for Wild Turkey Bourbon has always been consistency. Since my granddad, Jimmy Russell, took the reins at Wild Turkey as Master Distiller 64 years ago, we’ve been known for making our bourbon one way. We use the same yeast strain (which Jimmy used to keep in his refrigerator at home), #4 char for the deepest color in the aging process, non-GMO grains and we age for at least four years, which is beyond the minimum age required. Jimmy’s stubborn, so we’ve always done it one way. My grandfather has an expression: Do it right or don’t do it at all. That’s been the Wild Turkey mantra for as long as I can remember.
What other straight whiskeys are there besides bourbon?
Chris Morris, Master Distiller, Woodford Reserve
The Woodford Reserve family includes Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Woodford Reserve Wheat, Woodford … [+]
Woodford Reserve Distillery
After Prohibition, the federal government set guidelines for four main types of American whiskeys: bourbon, rye, malt and wheat. Woodford Reserve is the first major distiller to make all four. One of the requirements to be a bourbon is that corn be the dominant grain, but our other three straight whiskeys have a different dominant grain (rye, wheat or malt). By altering either the grain bill or maturation process, Woodford Reserve designs each expression’s flavor highlight. Each straight whiskey product emphasizes one of the areas of flavor to showcase our whiskey making expertise, all bringing new dimensions to cocktails and the drinking experience.
Just how important is the barrel to bourbon?
Chris Morris, Master Distiller, Woodford Reserve
The charring process at Brown-Forman Cooperage.
Maturation in a new, charred oak barrel is a legal requirement for Kentucky bourbon, giving it 100% of its color and more than 50% of its flavor. In 1945, Brown-Forman decided that it didn’t want to entrust that contribution to an outside vendor and built the Brown-Forman Cooperage. Having our own cooperage gives us the unprecedented ability to custom craft barrels for each of our brands and distilleries. For example, we use two different unique barrels at the Woodford Reserve Distillery: the Woodford barrel and the double oaked barrel. This, we believe, provides us with proprietary flavor development options.
Is it acceptable for people add a drop of water to bourbon before drinking?
Fred Noe, Master Distiller, Jim Beam
One of several barns on Jim Beam’s picturesque property.
I get asked this a lot by consumers around the world. Adding water to any whiskey is something I say is the drinker’s choice. I know some people enjoy all their whiskey neat and others enjoy some water added. I personally feel that adding a little water to higher strength whiskies opens the aroma up and will make cask strength whiskies more palatable. I have always told people to drink bourbons “any damn way they please.” I personally add a drop or two of water to bourbons I drink.
What is “finishing” and does that change the name/product?
Kyle Henderson, Production Manager, Angel’s Envy
Angel’s Envy Distillery
Finishing is a secondary maturation process. At Angel’s Envy, we initially age our bourbon in new charred white oak barrels for 4 to 6 years, and our rye for 6 to 8 years. After the initial maturation, our bourbon is then finished in a port wine barrel and our rye in a Caribbean rum barrel, typically for 3-18 months before it is ultimately bottled for the consumer. The finishing process lends an additional mouth feel, aroma and provides a level of complexity that you cannot get from the original bourbon barrel alone. A finished bourbon is still a bourbon, but once it is finished, you have a legal responsibility to let the consumer know that it is indeed a finished whiskey.
What’s the secret to a perfect Old Fashioned?
Marjorie Amon, Visitor Center Manager, James E Pepper
The creation of the perfect Old Fashioned Cocktail at the James E. Pepper Distillery Visitor Center.
The secret to the Old Fashioned Cocktail, the only cocktail served at the James E. Pepper Distillery, is to keep it simple. The Old Fashioned is a classic recipe, created for, or in honor of, Pepper at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 19th century. You can find many versions of the Old Fashioned today, but it doesn’t get better than the original, which was published in the 1930’s Waldorf Astoria Bar Book of pre-prohibition cocktails.
- 1 lump sugar
- 2 spoons water
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 1 jigger of 1776 Rye Whiskey
- 1 piece lemon peel
- 1 lump ice
Can an old industry like whiskey distilling be sustainable?
Ed Bello, Brand Director, Bulleit
A Peak Inside the new Bulleit Distilling Co. multi-sensory tasting experience.
Bulleit Distilling Co.
Yes! A benefit of the new Bulleit distillery is that we were able to build sustainable practices into our infrastructure. We set-up an approximately 100-acre habitat protection zone on the property, observe water conservation practices, utilize responsible waste reduction technologies, own the first industrial solar array in Shelby County, Kentucky and grow and source non-GMO corn from area farms to support local agriculture while reducing our carbon footprint. As we look to grow these efforts in the future, we are proud to collaborate with a variety of partners including Oceanic Global, the University of Kentucky and local farmers on sustainable practices at Bulleit Distilling Co.
What is the role of a master distiller, and what are the benefits of not having just one?
Kaveh Zamanian, Founder and Whiskey Maker, Rabbit Hole
Kaveh Zamanian in the Rabbit Hole tasting lab.
The role of a master distiller differs depending on the size of operation and the brand, but there’s even greater variation when it comes to academic and work experience. I’ve seen people with little to no formal training to folks with marketing or business degrees and of course individuals with an advanced chemical engineering background. For me, advanced knowledge of distillation with well-developed sensory skills for tasting and evaluating new make and final product is a baseline requirement. However, at a fast moving, multidimensional operation, there is a much longer list of required skills. These skills can include, but are not limited to, business and management skills (such as management of distillery personnel); overseeing production and maturation process; maintenance of quality and safety standards; inventory planning and management; work on product innovation and development of new expressions; and excellent communication and public speaking skills to serve as the face of the brand. I believe it’s difficult if not impossible to place all these responsibilities on one person.
Our approach at Rabbit Hole calls out individual leads in a given area of expertise with a collective approach to ensure a well-balanced operation. Individual palates and our ability to identify smell and tasting notes vary. So, just like a high performing professional athletic team, a high functioning sensory panel calls for teamwork. Together, each member is able to learn about his/her sensory strengths and weaknesses. In time, experience and collaboration of each player allows the team to cover the field of sensory notes in order to make the best possible decisions regarding quality of new make, maturation process, barrel selection to blending and bottling.
What defines a Tennessee whiskey, and is it still a bourbon?
Andy Nelson, Founder & Head Distiller, Nelson’s Green Brier
Tennessee Whiskey from Nelson’s Green Brier
Nelson’s Green Brier
I prefer to keep things in life as simple as possible and the definition of Tennessee whiskey, when compared to bourbon, is just that. Tennessee whiskey, in simple terms, is bourbon plus. What that means is the following: made specifically in Tennessee (not just anywhere in the United States), made from at least 51% corn, aged in unused charred oak containers, and most uniquely, it undergoes the charcoal mellowing process. This last piece is the “plus.” You may recognize the first three criteria make it bourbon, but the final process makes it Tennessee whiskey.
What does the future of distillery tourism look like?
Fawn Weaver, CEO and Co-founder, Uncle Nearest
The innovative Nearest Green Distillery has been selling out tours since day one (pictured here) as … [+]
Stacey Preston Photography
I believe the future of distillery tourism looks quite different than it has in the past. It will be a lot less production-focused and more history and story-driven, allowing it to appeal to a larger demographic. The Nearest Green Distillery is the first distillery in America to be built with the full family in mind, from children to your teetotaling grandmother.
From the moment we opened our doors in September 2019, we have sold out tours every weekend and it is not uncommon for parents with teenagers and even babies to join us (they just bring a stroller and enjoy the tour with everyone else). Even those who do not drink whiskey absolutely love our tours as we are bringing together the three things Tennessee is most known for: music (country, bluegrass, Memphis blues), Tennessee Walking Horses and, of course, Tennessee whiskey. We’re building our Heritage Hall that will share the history of each of these things, and then each one is brought to life within our 270-acre farm, where you can see more than 50 stunning championship Tennessee Walking Horses trotting around out property.
We’re also building a bar with a stage that will host some of Tennessee’s hottest music artists, opening in 2021. Barrel House, the award-winning Tennessee BBQ joint from Lynchburg, Tennessee will open its second location at our distillery later this year. The miniature golf course, that will be built in phase four of our development, will be unlike any other: Rather than windmills and clown faces at the end of each hole, you’ll see replica column stills and NASCAR racing cars (an homage to the sport that few know actually began in Tennessee). The whiskey operations will take up less than 70 acres. The other 200 acres are for all things non-whiskey.