Bourbon: the spirit of America

The Bluegrass State may have started distilling bourbon, but Madison distilleries have created top-notch varieties.
J Henry and Sons bottles of bourbon
Photo courtesy of J. Henry & Sons / Julie Fix FotoWorx

Born and bred in the United States, bourbon has never been more in demand. Synonymous with Kentucky, it’s produced all around the nation, including in the Madison area. In 1964, Congress declared it “America’s Native Spirit,” prohibiting anything called bourbon from being made outside the U.S. What determines whether whiskey is bourbon are its ingredients, which must contain at least 51% corn, but may also contain rye, barley and sometimes wheat. Other regulations stipulate that it cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% alcohol content); and that it not enter the barrel stronger than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol content).

Once bourbon is bottled, many terms show up on its label, authenticating its provenance. If any bourbon is aged less than four years, it must say so on the packaging. Bottled-in-bond bourbon, per an 1897 law, must be manufactured the same season at a single distillery, then aged in a federally bonded warehouse for a minimum of four years before bottling at 100 proof. Single barrel bourbon, which is made via the standard practice, can’t be a blend from multiple barrels. All bourbon starts with sour mash, but sour mash whiskey — like Jack Daniel’s — contains leftovers from the previous batch.

Once bourbon is bottled, many terms show up on its label, authenticating its provenance. If any bourbon is aged less than four years, it must say so on the packaging. Bottled-in-bond bourbon, per an 1897 law, must be manufactured the same season at a single distillery, then aged in a federally bonded warehouse for a minimum of four years before bottling at 100 proof. Single barrel bourbon, which is made via the standard practice, can’t be a blend from multiple barrels. All bourbon starts with sour mash, but sour mash whiskey — like Jack Daniel’s — contains leftovers from the previous batch.

Bourbon’s history is a bit dodgy, but it begins in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. As early as the 17th century, colonists imbibed corn-based hooch. In 1783, Evan Williams opened the first commercial distillery in Louisville. Six years later, Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, opened his distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky, and began aging his corn whiskey in barrels. Frequently credited as the inventor of bourbon, Rev. Craig probably doesn’t deserve this distinction. What we recognize as bourbon today evolved over time, and many brands now bear the names of its pioneers, including Evan Williams and Craig. Some claim Bourbon County, Kentucky, which was eventually separated into 34 counties that are home to most of the state’s distilleries, is the source of its name. Others cite New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, where it was the libation of choice in the riverboat era.

Since 1946, J. Henry & Sons in nearby Dane, Wisconsin, has crafted fine bourbon on the family farm. It comes in three varieties — aged five years, cask strength, and cognac-barrel-finished. In 2006, Nick Quint came out of retirement to open Madison’s first distillery, Yahara Bay Distillers. In its fifth year it introduced V Bourbon, fashioned from four grains in small batches. Well-known Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac now distills spirits. Its bottled-in-bond bourbon sold out last November hours after being introduced. A new batch will go on sale in June. For neophytes timid about what to drink, Cask & Ale on State Street has about 100 different brands to sample, some rarely found around here.

Bourbon may never top brandy as Wisconsin’s favorite tipple, but make mine a bourbon Old-Fashioned any day.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.