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Bourbon has survived all manner of difficulties and restrictions to become one of the world’s best selling and most recognizable spirits. This unique and distinctly American whiskey came from humble origins, allowing poor farmers in the fields of Pennsylvania and Maryland to make a living from their crops. Prohibition, temperance movements and conflict continuously threatened to wipe Bourbon from existence, but today the drink is stronger than ever and has a global audience of millions. Over time, it has become more refined, and innovation and experimentation has set modern Bourbon apart from other whiskey styles.
Today, the Bourbon heartland and spiritual home is in Kentucky, where the whiskey producers of northern states traveled to seek a new home, free from oppressive tax regimes in the early days. It is now far from the rough and ready spirit of yesteryear, governed by strict rules and regulations to maintain standards and keep quality high. Modern Bourbon must be made from a mash which is no less than 51% and no more than 80% corn (the rest of the mash being made from rye, wheat or barley), giving it a distinctive sweetness, and it must be aged in charred, white oak casks with no other added ingredient but water.
The varied flavors of different Bourbons come about mainly from the different quantities of the permitted grains in the mash. A larger proportion of rye will produce a spicy, peppery whiskey, whereas more wheat will result in a smoother, more subtle drink. Ageing and water quality, as well as the expertise and vision of the craftsmen who distill it, will also make a difference, meaning there is much more to Bourbon than might first meet the eye.