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Bourbon: The Ultimate American Drink

29 September 2017

There’s no more authentic Wild Western drink.

On the Wild West Challenge, after a long day driving through the scenic and historic American West, you will more than likely settle down to relax with a drink. And what else would you drink other than a glass (or two) of American bourbon? Just the name itself evokes cowboys in saloons, Don Draper drinking an “Old Fashioned”, and the taste of freedom itself. Here’s what you need to know about an American classic.


What is Bourbon?


Simply, bourbon is whiskey. (Importantly, it’s not whisky: that title is reserved for Scotch). However, while all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon refers to a specific kind of American whiskey: if it’s not distilled in America, and if it isn’t at least 51% corn-based, then it isn’t bourbon. It can only be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof, less than other whiskeys, and then must be aged for at least four-years, in new oak-charred barrels, without additives. Only if a whiskey fulfills all these rules can it be called bourbon.


The History of Bourbon

Like the United States of America, bourbon was created in the 18th century. Similarly, it has since flourished. It originated in Kentucky, where distilling traditions had been brought over from Europe by Scots and Irish settlers. Also brought over from Europe was the term Bourbon, which referred to the old Royal dynasty of France. It’s likely that “Old Bourbon” actually referred to a region in Kentucky, although others claim it was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where the drink was sold as an alternative to cognac.


Whiskey and the Wild West


Photo via Flickr

When the West was wild, it was bourbon that was being drunk. Well, sort of. Cowboys in the saloons of frontier towns would certainly have called the stuff that they were drinking bourbon, but it wouldn’t have tasted much like the stuff we know today. It wasn’t really a time for strict licensing laws, so anything could be known as bourbon. And even if a bar acquired the genuine stuff from Kentucky, more profit could be made if it was mixed with something else. It wasn’t until strict laws at the end of the 19th century that it became possible to trust the quality of a bottle labeled bourbon.


The Bourbon Identity


Much modern bourbon advertising emphasizes the link between the bourbon of the Wild West and the stuff they sell today, but (luckily for modern taste-buds) it’s not really the case. Nowadays it’s a very refined product with identifiable brands like Jim Beam and Heaven Hill. It can be drunk straight, “on the rocks”, or even as part of cocktails. Famous cocktails often involving bourbon include Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, and of course, Old Fashioned. While these can also be made with rye or Canadian whiskey, we recommend the stuff from Kentucky.


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