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Let’s get one thing clear. Vietnamese Bourbon Arabica from Dalat has no connection to bourbon, the whiskey exclusively distilled in the United States. The Arabica coffee favored in Vietnamese blends is called bourbon because it originated on the French island of Bourbon, called Reunion today. But wait, maybe there is a tenuous tie. Bourbon Arabica beans produce a round, mellow flavor with notes of caramel. According to A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Bourbon Whiskey, the liquor’s general flavor can be characterized as having “big vanilla, oak and caramel notes.” Plus, there’s another link. The spirit, similar to the coffee, has a vague connection to France.

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association website says bourbon likely takes it name from Bourbon County in Kentucky. Formed from Fayette county in 1785 while still a part of Virginia, it was named to honor the French Royal Family. The area was a major shipment site for distilled spirits on their way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Whiskey barrels shipped from its ports were stamped with the county’s name making the drink and the place synonymous. Some people, including Michael Veach, a Louisville historian, believe the name comes not from Kentucky, but Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where the Kentucky whiskey was sold as a cheaper alternative to French cognac.

Whatever its origins, these days bourbon is enjoying a surge in popularity with mixologists who are coming up with creative recipes, inspired by the Mad Man, 1960s era when North American businessmen were downing cocktails such as Old-Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours by the bucketful.

The public will get a taste of an iconic bourbon at Toronto’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, Nov. 17-20th, at the Wild Turkey sampling bar. Additionally, adventurous tipplers can enter a replica mini-distillery to taste some of the brand’s other primo products. “We want to educate the public and demonstrate why Wild Turkey is different from traditional Canadian whiskeys,” explains John Andersen, senior brand manager, North American whiskeys, Campari Canada, which represents Wild Turkey.

What exactly is bourbon? Well, it is whiskey, but not all whiskey can be called bourbon because there are strict laws in the U.S. denoting what it can and cannot be. Bourbon that adheres to these rules is called “straight bourbon.” It must be made in the U.S., contain at least 51 per cent corn and be distilled to no more than 160 proof or 80 per cent alcohol by volume. When it enters the barrel for aging is must be 125 proof and when bottled it is usually at 80 proof (40 per cent alcohol), or sometimes higher. The other grains used in bourbon are usually malted barley and either rye or wheat. Because of the corn, bourbon tends to be sweeter and more full bodied than rye whiskey, another popular drink in Canada. There are also “blended” bourbons that contain at least 51 percent straight bourbon mixed with neutral grain spirits.

The process to make bourbon is relatively simple. The grain is ground and mixed with water. Usually, though not always, mash from a previous distillation is added to ensure a consistency across batches. This is referred to as a sour mash. Yeast is added, the mash is fermented and then distilled.

According to the authors of the book Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the resulting clear spirit is called “white dog” and is placed in newly charred American oak barrels for aging. Caramelized sugars from the charred wood provide color and flavor. Changes to the spirit also occur due to evaporation and oxidization.

The longer a bourbon matures, the more color and flavor it gains. Maturity, not a particular age, is the goal because when aged too long bourbon can become woody and unbalanced. Two years is the minimum for straight bourbons. To achieve its characteristic golden glow, Wild Turkey is aged for five years.

As well as the aging, it’s the treatment of the barrels that gives Wild Turkey its signature, bold taste. “They receive what is called an ‘alligator’ char which is deep and adds more spice and bite to the overall product,” says Andersen.

After maturing, bourbon is removed from the barrel, usually filtered and diluted with water, and bottled to at least 80 U.S. proof. Most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 U.S. proof. Other common proofs are 86, 90, and 100. “Bottled in bond” bourbon is 100 proof. The label “barrel proof” means there has been little or no dilution after removal from the barrels. Bourbon sold at less than 80 proof must be labeled “diluted bourbon.”

1611-bourb2Considering consumers’ increasing demands for authenticity and strict production monitoring, it’s no wonder bourbon is one of the top trending spirits on the market today. Cheers.

BOURBON FACTS

  • Nothing can be added to bourbon in the distilling process except water. All the flavor comes from the charred oak barrels.
  • Although very similar, Jack Daniels is called Tennessee whiskey, not bourbon, because it is filtered through maple charcoal.
  • 95 per cent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky.
  • In 1964, the U.S. Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.”
  • Small batch bourbons are bottled from a “batch” of barrels that have been mixed prior to bottling.
  • Single barrel bourbons come from one “single” barrel.
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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.