Unlocking the secrets of bourbon with the Bourbon Society of Baton Rouge

On the heels of the most bourbon-soaked of sporting events–the Kentucky Derby–this past weekend, we wondered what makes bourbon different. Does it have to be made in Kentucky? What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey? Bourbon Society of Baton Rouge co-founder David Steele gives us all the answers.

Bourbon is a uniquely American spirit, Steele says. In fact, to even bear the bourbon name, it must be made in the United States. “For example, Champagne is sparkling wine, but can only be called Champagne if it is made in that region of France,” he explains. “Tequila is an agave spirit, but it’s only tequila if it’s made in Mexico.”

To qualify as bourbon, Steele says a specific set of rules must be followed. The first is that there must be a “mash bill”—or mix of grain ingredients—of at least 51% corn. “You make a beer, but you make it out of corn,” Steele says. “You distill that. That distilled spirit gets aged in a barrel, and then that’s what turns into bourbon.”

The next requirement is a rule that dates back to the 1800s. It states that bourbon must be aged in new charred-oak barrels. There are other requirements regarding the specific proof at distillation and at the time of placing in a barrel, so that the bourbon maintains its robust flavor. It must be aged for two years to be considered “straight bourbon.”

And while Bluegrass State residents might claim otherwise—with about 90% of all bourbon coming from Kentucky—true bourbon can come from anywhere in the USA. “That’s probably the biggest myth,” Steele says. “People believe it has to be made in Kentucky, and I know Kentucky wishes it had to be made there, but it does not.”

Bourbon distillers—and award-winning ones at that—even exist here in south Louisiana. Local brands include Laissez VersezBaton Rouge Distilling and Sugarfield Spirits.

When it comes to flavor, Steele says almost 50% of bourbon’s flavor comes from the barrel, with the rest coming from the mash bill. The most common mash bills for bourbon usually contain corn, rye and wheat. Steele says popular wheat bourbons include Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle and Weller. Wheat gives bourbon a sweet, subtle flavor that makes it easier to drink. In contrast, rye gives bourbon more spice with more notes of cinnamon and clove than in a high-wheat mash bill.

Steele notes that every bourbon is a whiskey but not every whiskey is a bourbon. “Whiskey is like the overarching term for all spirits that are aged in some sort of oak container,” he says. “Bourbon is specific.”

Read more about the Bourbon Society of Baton Rouge in this story from the 225 archives. 

This story originally appeared in inRegister. To keep up with inRegister, subscribe to the free inRegister@Home e-newsletter here.