The Good Life: Bourbon defined

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Steve Palec

There are sayings that roll off the tongue that are impactful and easy to remember.

There is a great quote about bourbon that is not exactly simple: “All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.” It is a bit confusing, but it makes a lot of sense.

While this can seem like a braggadocios statement extolling bourbon as better than its counterparts, it really isn’t saying bourbon is better. In plainer English, it is basically specifying that bourbon is considered part of the whiskey family but it has stringent requirements that makes it distinct from other brown liquors.

Offer me a spectacular, rare and expensive bottle of Scotch and I will gladly take it, then turn around and regift it. Maybe even sell it if you can’t trace it back to me. I’ll even accept a $700,000 bottle of Yamazaki 55-year-old single malt whisky. Just don’t call it bourbon.

Well, actually if you have something that valuable that you’d like to give me, I’ll call it whatever you want.

But that doesn’t change the fact that all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.

I won’t get into the weeds, but to be considered straight bourbon, a whiskey must meet strict criteria, like being aged in a brand-new charred oak barrel. That is literal—many of the barrels used only once for bourbon are repurposed and shipped to Scotland.

There are other parameters, such as the amount of corn that must be used to produce bourbon, the fact that it may contain no artificial flavoring and there must be limits to alcohol by volume during the distillation process.

That reminds me of another great saying from William Faulkner: “Civilization begins with distillation.” Look at me, quoting Faulkner.

“Made in American” is another of those marketing slogans that became imbedded in our minds. Well, get this: bourbon must also be made in the United States, otherwise it is not technically bourbon, although there are great whiskeys made all over the world.

And it is the only liquor that is distinctly a U.S. product. And while the saying notes that not all whiskey is bourbon, other countries don’t even spell whiskey “whiskey” but rather “whisky.”

Imagine Dr. Pepper saying to Mr. Pibb, “I’m a pepper, he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper, we’re a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?” That question is probably not going to be received well. But saying that not all whiskey is bourbon isn’t jingoistic. It’s just stating a fact.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Milwaukee-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens. ‘The Good Life: Steve Palec on Bourbon’ lifestyle feature appears regularly at BizTimes.com.

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