We have a wealth of opportunities to celebrate bourbon in this country, and for that we can thank Congress. Not only did that esteemed body pronounce the homegrown whiskey “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964, but a 2007 Senate bill declared every September hence to be National Bourbon Heritage Month. This is one time when we can get behind the decisions of our government.
Some boozy history
Of course, whiskey in general isn’t an American product, but the specific type known as bourbon is. There are old-world whiskies, such as Scotch or Irish, and new-world whiskies — bourbon, Canadian, Tennessee, rye, corn, wheat and blended.
We owe a debt of gratitude to a Baptist minister from Kentucky, Elijah Craig, who first made bourbon in 1798. The processes Craig set in motion have evolved into standards that make bourbon a unique distilled spirit.
Whiskey must comply with stiff regulations to qualify as bourbon. It is made from fermented mash of grain — which includes not less than 51 percent corn — that is distilled to no more than 160 proof; entered into and aged in charred, brand-new oak barrels at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof. There can be no colors or flavors added — ever.
Within the strict rules, distillers can coax an array of flavors by creating their own mash bill, or grain recipe. Increasing the corn percentage can give it sweet flavors; adding rye gives it pepper, spice and bite; wheat brings out mellowness; and malted barley adds chocolate with fermented sugars.
The use of sour mash — that thin, watery part of a previously distilled batch of whiskey mash that is added into the next batch, a step Dr. James C. Crow developed in 1823 — also affects the flavor.
The biggest impact on flavor, though, is the barrel. It’s all about the oak. The wood seasoning ("toast" or "char"), along with conditions in the warehouse where the barrel is stored (the "rick house") — including its size, the location of the barrel, and temperature swings and extremes — contributes to the flavor as much as the age, proof, blending and batch.
Many people think that bourbon can be made only in Kentucky; others think it requires water from a pure limestone aquifer in Kentucky. Both conceptions are myths. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States — including North Texas.
Bourbon by way of Appalachia
Quentin Witherspoon has distilled all over the world. From using local ingredients in Africa to working with the finest rum distillers in the Caribbean, he's picked up tricks along the way. And that worked for his award-winning rum.
But he spent years moonshining in the Appalachians, and, for that, we have his bourbon. The 100 proof blend is Witherspoon's own recipe carried out in several distilleries across the country. He plans to bring the distillation to his Lewisville operation in the next few years to begin creating his five-year bourbon. Witherspoon's can be found at Goody Goody and Spec's.
Dallas County claims one as its own
Herman Marshall is Dallas County's first bourbon, and it comes from Dallas Distilleries. The owners and distillers are Herman Beckley and Marshall Louis. It all makes so much sense. Too much sense, really.
But the small-batch bourbon coming out of Garland has already won a silver medal from the American Distilling Institute in Denver despite being around less than a year. Not too shabby for Dallas' first. They also have a rye and a Texas single malt whiskey. The bourbon and others are available at Spec's, Goody Goody and Sigel's.
The Red River runs brown with bourbon
The guys behind JEM Beverage Co. carry a diverse portfolio of liquor, including a rum called Stingray and Western Son vodka. But we're here to talk about the bourbon. The Red River Texas Bourbon Whiskey starts out as Kentucky white dog, or un-aged bourbon, before JEM ages it in new, charred white oak barrels for five years.
Each bottle comes with a print of Texas wildlife, ranging from large mouth bass to longhorns. It makes sense considering a portion of each sale is donated by the Carrollton distillers to Native Texas Wildlife Conservation.
Playing the waiting game with fire
Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. TX Blended Whiskey has already been around the block a time or two, winning Best American Craft Whiskey and a Double Gold award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2012. Plus, each bottle has a different piece of leather boot on the cap.
Now Firestone & Robertson is getting into the bourbon game. Well, they're in it, because the bourbon is aging in barrels. It should be ready by 2014, and it's clear they're serious about keeping the bourbon Texas-true. Everything but the barley they use is from somewhere in Texas. That includes a yeast strain they got off a pecan in Somervell County. They cultivated the strain in labs at TCU until they were satisfied with it. That's some serious science.