When it comes to bourbons and whiskeys, I freely admit, I haven’t been a fan in the past. When it comes to the harder spirits, my tastes tend toward vodka and gin. I’ve found bourbons and whiskeys to be, in general, too hot and a little too harsh for me.
That all changed with Oregon Spirit Distillers new C.W. Irwin Premium bourbon. Heavens, this stuff is tasty. Smooth, smoky, with a bit of sweetness that a sweet tooth like me found to be intoxicating. (In the interest of disclosure, I should also admit that Brad Irwin, founder and main distiller at OSD, is an old friend of mine).
After trying this new elixir, I did a little digging into the origins of bourbon. Turns out there was a bunch of stuff I didn’t know. Such as, bourbons and whiskeys are not interchangeable, but they are similar. The short answer is that all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. The longer answer is…longer.
A whiskey (or whisky, for our friends across the pond) is a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily, if not exclusively, from cereal grains. What the predominant grain used in the mash determines what kind of whiskey it is. If it is at least 51% rye, then it’s a rye whiskey. If it’s 51% or more barley, it’s a malt whiskey.
In order to be classified as a bourbon, the mash must be at least 51% corn. That’s the starting point for Oregon Spirit Distillers’ C.W. Irwin Premium. In order to earn the label of a “straight” bourbon, the spirit will need to be aged for a minimum of two years in a new American oak barrel and contain no artificial colorings or flavoring agents – which is no problem for Oregon Spirit, as everything that goes into their products is as natural as the Oregon sunshine.
Purchasing a straight bourbon assures that you are getting a spirit that has been properly aged. If it is not specified as “straight,” then there’s no guarantee as to how long its been aged. Technically, you could put the distillate in a barrel for a week and call it “aged,” but the end product would be nowhere near as refined and complex as a straight bourbon.
The aging process accomplishes several things. Primarily, it adds flavor. During the warm summer months, the bourbon seeps into the wood as it expands, in the winter, as the barrel contracts, it is squeezed out. From the oak, it picks up tannins and vanilla-like compounds that add flavor and the familiar caramel coloring. The aging process also helps to smoothen the final product into a velvety spirit.
Much like champagne or Stilton cheese, bourbon is recognized as a regional product, and in order to be called bourbon, it must be produced in the United States. Contrary to popular opinion, at no time was the manufacture of bourbon restricted to Bourbon County, Kentucky; that just happens to be where the bulk of it has traditionally been produced.
Oregon Spirit, curiously, uses a smaller 33-gallon barrel to age in, instead of the industry standard 55-gallon barrel. A smaller barrel, I’ve been told, offers greater surface area for the bourbon to be in contact with the oak, and therefore, more flavor.
Once the final spirit is drained from the barrels, they can’t be used for bourbon again, but can be used to age whiskeys – but that’s another story. The barrels can also be used to age other liquids, such as Tobasco. And, odds are, if you have one of those half-barrel planters sitting in your yard, it was probably a bourbon barrel as some point during its lifetime.
I’m not a bourbon connoisseur, so I honestly can’t tell you how this might compare to other top-shelf spirits. But I can tell you that I make sure that I always have a bottle of this stuff handy in my liquor cabinet.