A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon

A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon

Whether you’re starting 2021 with a Dryuary or toasting the New Year until the fetid smell of 2020 has worn off, January’s become a time to get thoughtful about alcohol — what we love, what we hate and what role it plays in our newly pandemic-stricken social lives. It’s also the month when, in 1919, Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing prohibition in the state and ushering in a formalized relationship between booze and government. So, in January 2021, the Arkansas Times raises a glass to all things boozy with a series we’re calling Drink/Drank/Drunk: our city’s great cocktails and mocktails, the history of temperance in the state, brews to try before you die, a boozy playlist and more. 

If you’re in the spirit for a new spirit this year, don’t be afraid to give bourbon a try. Here’s a beginner’s guide to help you on your way.

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What is bourbon?

Bourbon is whiskey that meets a few criteria set by the federal government. Bourbon must be made of a grain recipe (aka a mash bill) that is at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. And it must be made in the United States. (There are also a couple of requirements about the alcohol content that are too complicated to get into here).

Does all bourbon come from Kentucky?

No, although Kentucky does produce 95 percent of the world’s bourbon supply. According to federal law, bourbon must be made in the United States, but it does not need to come from any particular state or region. (That includes Kentucky). That’s why you find distilleries producing bourbon all around the country, including here in Arkansas.

Medicinal whiskey?

Yep, that’s right. Before there was medical marijuana, there was medicinal whiskey. During Prohibition, six distilleries obtained medicinal whiskey licenses, allowing them to sell (and later produce) whiskey during the period that alcohol was otherwise prohibited. Doctors could even write prescriptions for whiskey for ailments including cancer, indigestion and depression, according to Smithsonian Magazine. So, when you see a whiskey like Old Forester claim that it has been “continuously sold before, during and after Prohibition,” it’s because it was sold legally during prohibition as medicinal whiskey.