Anyone can order a bourbon at a bar, but few can tell you much about it. You might know that bourbon is a type of whiskey. Maybe you have vague visions of Kentucky bluegrass when you hear the name.
But you probably haven’t heard much more about this all-American spirit, and that’s a shame. Everyone, especially Americans, should know all about this patriotic drink. It’s right up there with apple pie and the 4th of July.
Plus, learning fun facts about what you’re sipping always makes for excellent cocktail hour conversation. So if you want to impress your tavern chums, read on! We have 15 bourbon facts made for sharing with your friends at the bar, and more information about the first bourbon distillery.
1. It’s The Real Reason May 4th is an Important Date
Sorry Star Wars fans, but May 4th was special long before Obi-Wan and Yoda wished us well with the force. In fact, 13 years before the first Star Wars movie came out in theaters, on May 4th, 1964, Bourbon became America’s only official native spirit.
Congress passed the resolution with a majority vote, stating that bourbon is unique to the United States and like no other whiskey in the world. It’s the only spirit the U.S. claims as its own, which puts it right up there with the Bald Eagle and ballgame hot dogs, in our opinion.
2. There’s a Bourbon Trail You Can Explore
If you’re heading to Kentucky anytime soon, you’d be remiss to skip a trip down the Bourbon Trail. With 37 distilleries, bourbon-themed restaurants, and historic hotels, it’s an adventure every bourbon fanatic needs to experience.
Even casual consumers will love it. You get to explore Kentucky history and the roots of the Bourbon industry, which are undeniably intertwined. By bus, bike, or the Bourbon Boat, you can experience the birth of America’s spirit first hand.
Yes, you could drive yourself too. But if you plan to sample the spirits, we don’t suggest it. Bourbon is 80 proof at a minimum, so driving after imbibing is never an option.
3. Bourbon Gets Its Name From French Royalty, Sort Of
Despite its roots in American history, Bourbon’s name is entirely French. The House of Bourbon was extremely powerful in Europe and placed several French kings from the 1500s to the 1800s.
We should clarify, though, the Bourbon dynasty probably had little to do with bourbon’s creation. Instead, according to bourbon expert Michael Veach, it’s more likely that two industrious entrepreneurs stole the name for marketing purposes.
The Tarascon brothers traveled from Cognac, France, to Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1800s. There they may have formed the first bourbon distillery, though there are other competing claims.
Regardless, we know the Tarascon brothers begin to make and sell their whiskey down the river in New Orleans. We also know that they decided to age their whiskey in charred barrels to mimic French cognac’s flavor.
Legend has it that New Orleans residents loved the Tarascon brother’s product so much, that they began to ask specifically for the “special flavored whiskey sold on Bourbon Street.” Thus, bourbon was born.
4. 95% of Bourbon Comes from Kentucky, But it Doesn’t Have To
Bourbon creation is linked to Louisville, and most of it comes from Kentucky. Unlike other distinctly geographic-bound products, though, such as Champagne which must come from Champagne, France, bourbon can come from anywhere in the U.S.
Today, there are bourbon distilleries all over America, including California, where creative mixologists are infusing their bourbons with west coast botanicals.
5. There Are Bourbon Rules
Five of them, to be exact. The bourbon rules are:
- Bourbon must be made in the United States.
- It must be aged in a charred, new-oak barrel.
- The mash must be at least 51% corn.
- Whiskey cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof.
- Distilleries cannot add anything except water. They can add water only to lessen the proof when necessary.
6. Bourbon Distilleries Made Penicillin During WWII
During WWII, bullets and bombs were scary, but wound infection was a legitimate concern as well. Though Sir Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin some 15 years before WWII broke out, the antibiotic was in short supply.
So, bourbon distilleries converted to make Penicillin on a large scale, saving countless numbers of wounded troops. In a move reminiscent of the WWII penicillin plants, many bourbon distilleries today are making alcohol-based hand sanitizers to help protect people from Covid-19.
7. Thomas Jefferson Helped Make It What It Is
We remember Thomas Jefferson for many things. You know, like drafting the Declaration of Independence, and acting as the 3rd president of the United States. Unfortunately, he didn’t care for whiskey or other hard alcohol.
He did, however, help make Kentucky Bourbon what it is today. In the 1780s, he gave 60 acres of Kentucky land to farmers, telling them to grow “native crops.” He called the area Bourbon County in honor of the French, who acted as allies during the revolution.
8. Bourbon Requires Special Barrels; Scotch Gets The Leftovers
As stated in the rules, bourbon must be aged in a charred, new-oak barrel. Many consider the barrels to be downright magical. Charring the wooden staves inside each one releases faint flavors of toasted caramel and vanilla that infuse beautifully with the bourbon.
Bourbon barrels can only be used once for bourbon, but scotch producers are happy to have them after. They age their scotch in used bourbon barrels to create distinct scotch flavors.
9. The Best Bourbon is Hard to Find
There’s a serious cult following around Pappy Van Winkle, considered to be the best bourbon you can buy. Except, you can’t buy it very often. Pappy Van Winkle is almost impossible to find and typically requires years on a waiting list or a very deep wallet.
Luckily, Buffalo Trace Whiskey began distilling Pappy Van Winkle in the early 2000s. They also distill a bourbon called W.L Weller. Few realize this, but it’s true; 12 yr. W.L Weller uses the same recipe as 10 yr. Pappy Van Winkle for a smidgeon of the price.
10. There Are More Barrels of Bourbon than People in Kentucky
Yep, Kentucky is home to 4.7 million barrels of bourbon. It’s only home to 4.3 million people. So there really are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky.
11. Bourbon Requires No Minimum Age
There may be a minimum age to drink it, but there’s no set number of years to age bourbon. Technically speaking, as long as it sits in a new oak, charred barrel for even a millisecond, it’s legal to call it bourbon. That said, anything aged for less than four years requires an age statement on the label.
Unaged, or white dog, bourbon is sometimes sold at distilleries. It never hits a barrel at all and is really just a clear grain-based spirit. It’s harsh and strong, but some take a liking to it.
12. Seek Out the Crow’s Nest For the Best Bourbon Barrels
For the true bourbon fan, barrel picks are very in-vogue. Why seek out a single bottle when you could buy the whole barrel of your favorite distillation!
It’s pricey, with barrels costing anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. But should you decide to purchase one, seek out the crow’s nest. The Crow’s Nest refers to the upper levels of the warehouse where barrels are stored. It’s always where they keep the best bourbons!
13. Taxes Account For More Than Half the Cost of a Bottle
About 60% of the cost of any given bottle of bourbon goes to the government. On top of that, bourbon producers in Kentucky pay over $14 million in property taxes to store their barrels.
14. Mint Juleps Were Created to Disguise Bad Bourbon
They also disguised lousy whiskey. Back in the day, we weren’t as great at distilling all the off-flavors out of our alcohols. So, we used mint and plenty of sugar to disguise any bad bourbon flavors. Thus, the mint julep was born.
15. Truman Believed in Breakfast Bourbon
President Truman started his day with a substantial breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast, milk, and– bourbon! That’s right, our 33rd president supposedly woke up at 5 am, took a brisk walk, and then took a shot of Wild Turkey.
We’re not sure about bourbon for breakfast, but, hey, who are we to judge? As America’s only native spirit, maybe Americans should drink it whenever they want!
You knew you loved sipping on bourbon at the bar, but we bet at least one of these facts caught you off guard.
Bourbon’s full of feisty flavor and quirky tales just like the country it grew out of. It’s as American as the stars and stripes, and with an 80 proof minimum, it sure can pack a punch. We can’t think of a better spirit to represent the U.S.
Next time you want to strike up a conversation at the bar, order a bourbon and impress the tavern with your knowledge. Better yet, buy a round for everyone to try. You’ll walk away with at least a few new friends who appreciate your bourbon-loving mind!