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Spirits Articles

The Bourbonation of America
The State of Whisky Addressed

Posted: October 29, 2010

By Jerald O’Kennard

As dead leaves fall and bitter winds bellow, I find myself reaching for a fortifying glass of America’s native spirit, bourbon. My old Kentucky friend is always near and dear, but something new is bubbling, brewing, and becoming across the land. Familiar scents entice me from unfamiliar places and capture my imagination. From almost every state of nation and at almost every state of nascence, bourbon is coming forth.  I see them, I taste them, I admire them.

Bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky to be bourbon. As has been explained in these very web pages for many years, bourbon is a special type of American whisky: made of at least 51% corn and aged for at least two years in new charred American oak barrels. That is the law, but the tradition has been mostly Kentucky’s, the place where corn whisky and bourbon were perfected long ago and where the vast majority of bourbon brands are produced.

But now, with the advent of craft distilling, American whiskies, and bourbons in particular, are being distilled and matured in almost every state of the Union. These distillers are aptly named; they are indeed a crafty lot. Not content with the status quo, they challenge many currently held notions and practices of how to make, and even what are, American whiskies. They know the rules, mind you, inside and out in fact, and can quote the federal standards of whisky identity in their sleep; not because they are fearful of breaking the law or channeling the shadowy legacy of the bootlegger, but because they want to push the limit, revisit lost traditions, and challenge themselves to create something new.

And though they are fiercely independent and competitive, they are civil, and share their knowledge and passions. Most share a similar business strategy as well. First come the white whiskies (along with the requisite vodkas and gins): the sooner-made “white goods” that the stillman needs to get to market to finance the real passion, the long term goal, the aged whisky, the bourbon. Bourbon takes time and patience, to make and to appreciate. It doesn’t come easy, but it is worth the wait for all who treasure it.

Two score and two weeks ago, we called for a reckoning of the state of affairs of the Bourbon Nation through our annual American whisky tasting. We found a host of liquid treasures from iconic names in the spirits industry as well as young upstarts. Some of the whiskies were experimental, some were traditional, most were well made, a few sublimely so. Below is an inventory of our impressions and reviews, a catalogue of pleasures, both sensate and ethereal to be bestowed upon us all by these most noble, most American spirits.

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