The Good Life: Bourbon’s beautiful rules

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Steve Palec

Bourbon has a lot of rules. I love bourbon. I’m not always a big fan of rules.

This was best illustrated when I was part of a large commercial real estate firm divided by “eat what you kill” brokers and an equal number of “by the book” property managers.

We once had an outing at a ballgame and our large size required almost an entire section. I remember handing out the tickets to everyone during the tailgate party. It was fun to see the brokers come in the stadium and sit wherever they felt like within the section, while the property managers checked their exact seat numbers and deliberately sat down there, even if they were alone in the row.

Aside from the pride I feel in knowing that bourbon is a distinctive American product, I am also fascinated and comforted by the strict rules governing its production. In addition to having to be made in the U.S., bourbon’s grain mixture must be at least 51% corn. It is always aged in brand new charred oak containers. It is distilled at no more than 160 proof, enters the barrel at no more than 125 proof and is bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. There are even more rules for straight bourbon.

Contrary to the belief of some, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. Although there are more barrels aging there than people living in the state, and 95% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky, it is not a rule.

Three of the reasons the region produces such great product, aside from recipes and experience, are grain, water and climate. The maturation process for bourbon, occurring as it expands and contracts within those charred wood barrels, is accelerated by the state’s rapidly changing weather conditions. I once had the experience in Kentucky of clearing snow off my car in the morning and putting the top down on the convertible in the afternoon of the same day. Their limestone-filtered water and heirloom corn are also top rate.

But hold up: Wisconsin also has excellent water, extreme weather conditions and what looks to me to be as many corn fields as Kwik Trip locations. What do Wurtland or Wingo, Kentucky, have that you can’t get in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin?

Speaking of which, I was once at a very cool Pappy Van Winkle Q&A tasting event held at Ray’s Liquors on North Avenue in Tosa. While I couldn’t resist lobbing in a few questions to hype my credibility, I was duly impressed by the knowledge of the lady sitting right in front of me. We traded tidbits at the pace of a pickleball cage match. She later introduced herself as Liz Henry, which explained everything.

You see, those Kentucky attributes are indisputable, but you can put Wisconsin corn up against any. Liz and her husband, Joe, have produced wonderful corn, wheat and rye on their farm in Dane, Wisconsin, for decades. Their heirloom red corn was first developed by the University of Wisconsin in 1939.

As Henry Farms lived the 1980s struggles of a 1980s John Mellencamp song in real life, they developed various means to survive, including coming up with the idea of using their corn and fresh water to make their own bourbon. That result is J. Henry & Sons bourbon, an exceptional endeavor now available on shelves.

But the period from idea to seeing what they had couldn’t circumvent the rules. They had to find alternative means of farm survival during the five years when they aged their first barrels. It was worth the wait.

Bourbon rules in an uncertain world give you the comfort that you know what you are getting. Of course, it is still art and not strictly science, so quality varies. I am glad the distillers follow the rules, because when I find something I like, I don’t have the patience to wait.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Milwaukee-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens.

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