"Before bourbon goes into the barrel, they char the inside by literally lighting the barrel on fire," says Sheri Haupt, Southern California area manager for bourbon distributor Future Brands. "They char it to a depth, meaning how deep into the wood of the barrel they'll burn it to. I think charring deeper into the wood draws out more of the sugars of the wood itself." On Friday, October 19, Haupt will host a bourbon-tasting event at the Palm Restaurant in downtown San Diego. "There are legal guidelines that a bourbon company has to follow in order to label their product a bourbon," Haupt explains. "It has to be at least 51 percent corn and has to be aged in new barrels -- in other words, they cannot reuse their barrels and call their product a bourbon."
Bourbon is an American whiskey composed mostly of corn (typically 65 to 70 percent) and can also include wheat, rye, and malted barley. It is aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels and contains no added ingredients. "It's funny, because there's really not a whole lot of reasoning behind a lot of those laws," says Haupt. "Fifty-one percent corn does not make or break a better bourbon; that's just what was required by law. Kentucky was a place that had vast fields of corn, way back when, in the late 1700s."
Bourbon was named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, which contained a major port for shipping distilled spirits to New Orleans via the Mississippi River. All of the barrels leaving the port were marked with the county's name, and eventually all corn whiskey was referred to as bourbon.
"The common phrase is that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon," says Haupt. "Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon; it's a whiskey because they do not follow the legal guidelines for their product to become a bourbon." According to www.straightbourbon.com, Jack Daniel's does not make the cut because it is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal. "The process, called the Lincoln County Process, infuses a sweet and sooty character into the distillate as it removes impurities. But up to and after the charcoal filtering, the Jack Daniel's production is much the same as any other bourbon."
Because of the high corn content and the charred barrels, bourbon tends to be the sweetest and mildest whiskey. Scotch is known for its smokiness, which is acquired by the peat moss burned to heat the kettles that contain the fermenting grain and malt.
"I think that you can find a smoky bourbon," Haupt says. She suggests Basil Hayden, which contains more rye than most other bourbons. "The rye brings a little more spice to it. A nine-year-old, 100-proof bourbon lends its hand to somebody who enjoys scotch -- it's really dark, higher proof, and because it has sat for nine years in that barrel it has more of a walnut, smoky flavor."
In the tasting Haupt will include cask-strength bourbon, or bourbon that is unfiltered and not diluted with water. "Booker's [bourbon, by Jim Beam] is cask strength [126 proof]. I will be serving it full strength, and it will be up to the consumer if they'd like to cut it [with water]. All adding water does is reduce the proof."
When bourbon is placed into barrels for aging, it must be at least 80 proof but not higher than 125 proof. After it has aged for at least two years, the bourbon is diluted with water and bottled. Except for cask strength, bourbon is placed in barrels at a higher proof than it will be sold. This is mostly due to the cost of barrels.
"Bourbon is special because it's 'America's native spirit,'" says Haupt. "This is something we should all embrace; I think we tend to lose track of our heritage." Bourbon was given the title as the nation's official drink by an act of Congress in 1964, after which production was restricted to the United States. The U.S. Senate declared September 2007 to be "National Bourbon Heritage Month."
Haupt is a bourbon drinker, though she admits cask strength is a little high proof for her. She enjoys a drink called "muddled creek cocktail," for which she uses Knob Creek bourbon, muddled orange, a splash of Triple Sec, and ginger ale. "It's a little twist on the 'old fashioned,' especially if you don't drink it right away. When it just sits for a moment or two, the flavors marry well together."
Haupt says that milder bourbons like Maker's Mark are attracting a new generation of bourbon drinkers. "It's become what I call the bartender's bourbon. A lot of new places, like the Tractor Room and the Cowboy Star, which is opening soon, are gearing toward a bourbon drinker -- the whole atmosphere is based and geared around bourbon. They have many cocktails featuring it, and the food they serve pairs well -- comfort food with a flair, like stews or steaks. A lot of times we think it's our dad's and grandfather's drink, but it's definitely not anymore." -- Barbarella
Single Batch Bourbon Tasting
Friday, October 19
6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
The Palm Restaurant
615 J Street
Cost: $25 in advance, $30 at door
Info: 619-702-6500 or www.thepalm.com