When I think of bourbon, I immediately think of Maker's Mark—as I'm sure many of you do, too. Whether or not it's your favorite, it's certainly one of the most iconic. I envision a red wax-sealed bottle behind just about every well-stocked bar, high-end or low, the world over.
So I found it almost hard to believe that every drop of the stuff is made at a single facility in Loretto, Kentucky. And last week, we got a chance to see just how it happens, from the corn delivery to barreling to bottling.
Let's start at the beginning—what is bourbon, exactly? All bourbons are barrel-aged grain spirits, but there are additional criteria they must meet. For a whiskey to classify as bourbon, it must be made from at least 51% corn. Bourbon has to be lower than 160 proof at distillation; by the time it's put into the barrel, it must be 125 proof or under; that barrel must be made of charred oak, and only new barrels are allowed. In the bottle, it has to be at least 80 proof. If it's labeled as "straight bourbon," it must be aged for at least two years. If simply labeled as "bourbon," at least four. And nothing can be added to alter what comes out of the barrel—nothing to modify the color, flavor, or texture, other than water to bring the proof down.
It's sometimes thought that bourbon can only be from a designated geographic area, the way Champagne or tequila must be produced in certain regions in order to earn that designation. That's not the case with bourbon; any American whiskey meeting the above criteria can, according to most trade regulations, be labeled as bourbon. However, 95% of it does, like Maker's, come from the area surrounding Bardstown, Kentucky.
Making Bourbon at Maker's
Well-known though it may be, Maker's has about a tenth of the production of its bourbon neighbor down the road, Jim Beam. Their entire production still takes place at their Kentucky distillery. Education director Dave Pudlo brought us around to see, smell, and taste every step of the process—from grinding the corn to draining the barrels (to tasting the results). Come see how it's made!
See how bourbon's made, start to finish, in the slideshow »
About the author: Carey Jones is the Senior Managing Editor of Serious Eats. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).