By Fred Minnick

Is Kentucky the Home of Bourbon?

Or can you make it anywhere?
As the long line wrapped around the bar, I noticed an older woman intensely staring at me. Did she hate my ascot? Did I remind her of her son? I mean, she was really staring at me with the kind of gaze that could go either way.

I had just finished a quick 15 minute talk about Bourbon. Conventions and companies frequently book me for Bourbon tastings. I give a quick talk, offering a short Bourbon history and brief tasting profile of each of the products at my tasting bar. They are a lot of fun. And this woman either loved or hated it.

She slowly walked toward me, obviously with something to say.

“Bourbon must be made in Kentucky. I’m from here. I know,” she said.

Oh yes. The classic passionate Kentuckian who hates that part of my discussion, where I debunk the myth that Bourbon must be made in Kentucky. In 1964, the US Congress gave Bourbon a US only product distinction, similar geographical protections that Scotch, Cognac and Champagne enjoy in their respective regions. I usually say something to the effect, “In fact, Bourbon is currently distilled and bottled in New York, California, Wyoming and Washington, among other states.” I usually get an “Oh, I didn’t know that” reaction or “Yeah, everybody knows that” response from a typical mixed crowd.

In these wonderful rare moments of misunderstanding, I get the opportunity to educate somebody about the fun and quite delicious Bourbons distilled at the likes of Garrison Brothers in Texas. Most passionate Kentuckians are respectful and agree to try the non Kentucky Bourbons behind the bar after I finish my spiel. But on some occasions, I make people more upset.

I’ve had similar encounters before. As I wrote in Bourbon Curious, one person slammed his red solo cup on a table and tried to get tough in his battle of Bourbon wit. With this lady, I did my best to educate her, but she walked away telling people I didn’t know anything about Bourbon.

Surely in this great Bourbon boom, Kentuckians are willing to allow for other Bourbon brands to compete for liquor store shelf space.

Not exactly.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer publicly tell people that 95 per cent of the world’s Bourbon is made in Kentucky. “The rest is counterfeit” which draws quite a few laughs.

On the distillery side, many major Kentucky distilleries absolutely downplay Bourbon from other states. In a recent History Channel article, in which I was also quoted, legendary Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell summarised how many Kentuckians feel, “You can make Bourbon anyplace in the country, but if it’s not Kentucky Bourbon, it’s not Bourbon.”

However, I do not have the liberty of only following one region of whiskey. Yes, since I live in Kentucky, my time is mostly spent covering Kentucky, but I objectively cover all Bourbons, and I hope you will taste objectively. The reason why non-Kentucky Bourbon distillers deserve a shot in your bar is they’re truly practising ‘innovation,’ a term many use for their flavoured whiskey teams.

In New York, Kings County Distillery released a peated Bourbon. Yes a peated Bourbon. Nobody in Kentucky would have ever tried this. In Texas, Balcones makes blue corn Bourbon. Due to the minimal supply of blue corn, it’s unlikely a Kentucky distiller would attempt a blue corn Bourbon. You have smaller distillers using 80 per cent corn, 20 per cent barley mashbills, and they’re experimenting with fermentation lengths, off-the-still proofs and barrel-entry proofs, creating new flavours in Bourbon that you might enjoy and unlikely that you would find in Kentucky Bourbons.

It’s true that the best Bourbon is made in Kentucky, but many smaller distillers are not far away. At a major international competition a couple of years ago, Balcones nearly won best Bourbon over industry giants. Perhaps that’s why the state’s politicians and distillers openly discredit other state’s Bourbons: They see the potential.