Bourbon Rules

In the state of Kentucky there are 5 Million barrels of bourbon aging at this very moment. The population of Kentucky is around 4.5 Million people. Do you get your own personal barrel of bourbon when you’re born in Kentucky? No. But knowing that there are more aging bourbon barrels than residents in the state, one could assume that we Kentuckians might know a few things about the “brown water”. What is bourbon? Well, in Kentucky, Bourbon rules. So let’s take a look at the “rules” of bourbon-making. 


If a product being sold in the US or Canada is labeled as “bourbon”, it must be produced in the U.S. and conform to the U.S. standards. These rules don’t apply to the rest of the world, but the U.S. won’t import anything that claims to be bourbon. The United States Congress declared bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States” in 1964.


While there is no legal requirement for how long a barrel of bourbon must age, if the bottle is labeled “straight bourbon”, then it must have been aged for at least two years. Similarly, if a bottle is labeled “straight bourbon” and has been aged for less than four years, the age must be disclosed on the bottle. Straight bourbon cannot contain any added colors, flavors, or spirits. These are a few of many reasons why you need not sip on any bourbon that is aged for less than four years (in my opinion). You want flavor? Respect the elders. Start at ten year old bourbon and work your way up.


Bourbon must be crafted from a grain mixture that contains at least 51% corn. The aging process must take place in virgin, charred American oak barrels. Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, stored in barrels at no more that 125 proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. You will find different proofs within the same brand of bourbon sometimes. When you see the words “barrel proof”, it basically means that they didn’t dilute the bourbon after the aging process, resulting in a high proof bourbon (typically over 100).


Honestly, the origin of bourbon, who invented it, and what it’s named for is a bit of a mystery. I know of at least four conflicting stories. What we do know is this: in Kentucky, bourbon rules. Why? There might be a few reasons why, but I tend to appreciate the geography aspect. The state of Kentucky, sits on an abundance of limestone. In my Realtor world, I know that limestone can cause radon gas emissions. Radon gas can seep into homes and cause health problems, which is a bummer, but totally fixable. In the bourbon world, however, limestone acts as a natural water filter that produces iron-free water, which is rich in calcium and perfect for making bourbon. Much better!

I bet the next time you see a bottle of bourbon, you look twice at the label.

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