Lessons from the master

All bourbon is whiskey, but all whiskey ain’t bourbon

There are a few rules that have to be followed to call a product bourbon, and according to Fred Noe one thing that people really get mixed up is that they say all bourbon has to come from Kentucky. Apparently not so. He says to be called bourbon it has to be made in the United States – anywhere in the United States.

“They’re making bourbon from coast to coast now; 95 percent does come from Kentucky, but it doesn’t have to come from Kentucky.”

But for it to be called bourbon, the majority grain in the recipe, at least 51 percent of the mash recipe, has to be corn; they back up the corn with rye and malted barley.

They also have to use a brand-new barrel every time they age the bourbon, so there’s no re-using barrels, and no color or flavors can be added to bourbon.

“When we make the bourbon, it’s crystal clear just like water. We put it in barrels made from white oak and let nature take over. Hot summers, the whiskey expands and goes into the wood; cold winters it contracts and comes out. That inward and outward movement is where we get 100 percent of the color and probably 70 percent of the flavor in the bourbon whiskey. This takes place during the aging.”

Whiskey has to touch a white oak barrel before it can be considered bourbon.

“When the whiskey is made, before it goes into the barrel it’s called whiskey. It has that white oak barrel to be called bourbon. It just has to touch the barrel. You can put it in a white oak bucket, take it across the floor and dump it out, it can be called bourbon. To be called Straight Bourbon it’s got to be aged for at least two years. You call it Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey when its been aged in the state of Kentucky for at least two years.”

To be called bourbon it also cannot be higher than 160 proof when distilled. When it’s barrelled, it cannot be higher than 125 proof. And when it’s put into the bottle, it cannot be lower than 80 proof.

“As long as you follow every one of those rules and do not deviate, you can put the word bourbon on the label,” said Noe. “Any deviation, your product will fall back into the whiskey category. The saying is, ‘all bourbon is whiskey, but all whiskey ain’t bourbon’.”

Tasting your bourbon

Always look at the color: You can tell a lot about what you’re drinking by looking at the color – the lighter the color, the lighter the bourbon’s going to taste in flavor. As it gets deeper and darker in color, it’s going to be more complex in flavor.

Look at the nose and aroma: When you put your nose into the glass, part your lips – don’t keep your lips tightly closed, because if you keep your lips tightly closed, you’re going to pull alcohol into your nose that the alcohol will take over. Parting the lips makes a difference in how you smell bourbon; you can almost taste it when you part your lips.

Taste: Fred Noe’s dad had a unique way of tasting bourbon. He put it in his mouth, rolled it around and chewed on it because different parts of the mouth pick up different flavors. He said his dad did this, and a whiskey writer years ago coined the term “The Kentucky Chew” on the way Booker tasted his bourbon.

Assess the finish: Assessing the finish is the fourth step in tasting; that’s the flavor the bourbon leaves behind after you swallow it.

A few other rules from Fred Noe: If you taste the bourbon and make a face, then it’s too strong – cut it down ‘til it’s pleasing to your palate. If you want to do it with soft drinks that’s okay, water that’s great, cocktails that’s perfect. If you want to drink it out of the bottle, that’s okay too. I’ve coined the term – drink it any damn way you want! I’m not going to sit here and tell you how to drink it. I want to make sure you enjoy it. It should be a pleasurable experience – that’s what it’s all about.

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