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Where is Bourbon Made?

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

In order to be called bourbon, the whiskey must be made within the United States. As the saying goes: 

All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.

As per a Congressional Resolution on May 4, 1964:

Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” 

The Resolution is now legend, having taken on a status equivalent to the Declaration of Independence in the bourbon whiskey community. 

Where is Bourbon Made?

(Photo: The bourbon section at a Trader Joe's store.)

Must be made within the USA

Going forward bourbon received the status like Champagne, which can only be called Champagne if that sparkling wine originates from the Champagne region of France. Otherwise, it cannot be called by that name.

The declaration gives the product a unique position in international trade agreements. You can only call your brand of whiskey bourbon if it is distilled and manufactured within the USA. 

In fact, this exalted, nearly mythical status started off a primarily a strategic marketing move. America's liquor conglomerates had bet that the Korean War would negatively impact the supply of their product, just as it had in World War II, when grains were routed vto help feed war-torn Europe. But the Korean conflict turned out not to have those widespread consequences. Thus the major distributors, ie Schenley Distillers Corporation, one of the Big Four. Following the Korean War, they found themselves with excessive inventories, and the overseas markets provided a good outlet, which could only be helped by preventing foreign competition. If you wanted bourbon, it had to come from the United States.

Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky 

Contrary to what many believe, bourbon does not have to be made in the state of Kentucky. Today, bourbon is made all over the country, as long as it is in a state or territory of the United States. It is estimated that there are about 740 whiskey/bourbon distillery businesses in the nation as of 2022, up 15% from 2021. Having said that, the vast majority of bourbon whiskeys are made in Kentucky. Common wisdom says the bluegrass state is perfect for the brown nectar: the hot summers and cold winters expand and contract the barrels, and of course there are the limestone waters.

But most of it is made in Kentucky

In 2019, The Kentucky Distillers’ Association’s (KDA) reported that “Kentucky continues to produce 95 percent of the world’s bourbon.”

Of course, one might ask if the KDA might be exaggerating the percentage a bit, considering the bias of promoting Kentucky's Bourbon Trail. But it turns out, the 95% is probably pretty accurate. Vine Pair did some further research and concludes:

"...this leaves us tantalizingly close to the 95 percent number. Go figure."

The elephant in the room, as Vine Pair and others have noted, is Jack Daniels, made in Tennessee. JD's Black Label is the #1-selling whiskey, with 150 million bottles sold worldwide a year. That would certainly put a dent in the 95%. But Jack Daniels does not market itself as a bourbon. They are a Tennessee whiskey, which goes  through the Lincoln County Process: The whiskey is filtered through – or steeped in – charcoal chips before going into the casks for aging. 

Here are the rules that make it bourbon.

  • Must be made in the USA. In 1964, Congress mandated that bourbon had to be made in America to be called bourbon. It doesn't have to be in Kentucky, but it has to be in the US.
  • Has to be aged in new charred white oak barrels. This is what gives the juice its caramel, vanilla notes, and other flavors.
  • At least 51% corn
  • Not higher than 160 proof. The higher the proof, the more the flavors are removed. Think of vodka at 190; no flavor.
  • 125 proof into the barrel
  • 80 proof or higher into a glass bottle
  • Genuine, no additives or flavors

Daniels (as Frank Sinatra called it) seemingly  breaks the last rule. Some say it doesn't, but the original request to be labeled a bourbon was in fact rejected and the company decided to use that as a marketing point, Thus Kentucky remains the #1 bourbon state.

Having said that, bourbon distilleries are now all over the United States. During Superbowl 2022, local LA bars had Beach Straight Bourbon from LA Distillery, made in the USA.

In fact, here at Colonel Bourbon T-Shirts, we imagined a rather unique pour from the great state of Florida, tongue firmly in cheek :)

When was bourbon called America's native spirit?

For the record, the 1964 Congressional Resolution did not declare bourbon America's native spirit. That came in 2007 when Kentucky Senator Jon Bunning introduced a resolution to declare September Bourbon Heritage Month.

Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States

(Photo: The  1964 U.S. Congressional Resolution declaring, “Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States.) 

In summary

So to summarize, the whiskey must be made in the United States to be labeled a bourbon. It doesn't have to come from Kentucky although most bourbon currently does originate from the bluegrass state. The grains must be at least 51% corn and the liquor must be aged in charred new oak barrels. With no other additives or flavors, which is why Jack Daniels doesn't call itself bourbon.

"Distinctly American":

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