How Bourbon Became America's Drink And 4 To Try Now

How bourbon became America's national spirit

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This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food and drink.

During the Colonial Era, rum and applejack were America's best-loved spirits. During the Prohibition years, gin was the bee's knees. But now, we're waving the flag for the red, white and bourbon.

Why is bourbon the quintessential American spirit?

First things first. Here's a quick bourbon definition: It's any whiskey made in the U.S. consisting of at least 51 percent corn and aged in charred new oak containers. It doesn't have to be made in Kentucky, though most of the best ones are anyway. There are a few other more technical regulations, too, but those are the basics. If you breezed past that first part, allow us to reiterate: Bourbon is the only spirit that must be 100 percent made in the United States—otherwise, it's just whiskey. In his breezy book, Drink More Whiskey, Daniel Yaffe breaks it down further:

We brought whiskey over from the old country.

Whiskey became number one, because rum (imported from the Caribbean) was highly taxed, but spirits made from domestically grown grain, not so much. Add to that the flood of Irish and Scotch immigrants who brought whiskey-making know-how with them, offering a comforting taste of the motherland.

J.R. Ewing Private Reserve

Corn was (and still is) king.

The first American whiskeys were made from rye—but corn has long been one of America's bumper crops, and the excess was readily turned into corn whiskey. Even today, the U.S. government funnels money to farmers to encourage them to produce "obscene amounts" of corn, Yaffe observes. In other words: It's not a coincidence that at least 51 percent of every bottle of bourbon must be made from corn. That said, the remaining 49 percent can be made from a variety of other grains, often rye, wheat or barley, though a growing number of craft distillers are using more unusual grains like oat or spelt.

Barrels played a key role.

Bourbon's not just distilled corn. In fact, it's not considered whiskey until it hits the wood. And that wood matters. A lot. Regulatory language is vague, specifying only "charred new oak containers," but much of that oak historically was and continues to be sourced from the Midwest. "New" wood was mandated early on (in the 1930s) to help keep the lumber industry and barrel makers employed. But why charred?

"Most likely, the first whiskey makers to burn the inside of the barrel were repurposing casks that had previously held fish or sauerkraut," Yaffe posits. Regardless, all that new charred wood imparts those bold vanilla and caramel aromas and flavors that make bourbon so delicious.

Put all that together, and it's no wonder bourbon is the official spirit of the U.S., by act of Congress—a nifty bit of trivia to remember for winning your next bar bet.

Four new and notable bourbons to try now:

J.R. Ewing Private Reserve ($35): Yes, it's a Dallas-themed bottling; it's a four-year-old bourbon made in Kentucky, and it's an easy sipper ideal for mixing into old-fashioneds and other cocktails.

Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Bourbon ($40): Finished in casks that are one-quarter the size of regular barrels (hence the name), this bourbon layers flavors of caramel, crème brûlée and spice.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof ($45): Light, drying and spicy. Bring on the branch water, because it's bottled at cask strength (112 proof).

Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon ($112): Think of it as a special-occasion whiskey. At 11 years old, it's aged longer than the average bourbon, and it explodes with complex red fruit and creamy caramel. It's another cask-strength bourbon, bottled at a whopping 120 proof.