With a worldwide boom in bourbon consumption, master distiller at Wild Turkey, Eddie Russell, has been in Hong Kong this week touting his brand of American whiskey with master classes and food pairing events. He is fourth generation in the bourbon industry. His father joined Wild Turkey in 1954 and is still there, and Eddie in 1981. 

Here are some little known facts you may not know about bourbon, courtesy of Eddie:

 

1. Bourbon is known as the ‘honest’ spirit 

This stems from the strict regulations the US government put on the bourbon distillers – the strictest of all spirits. Bourbon has to be made from at least 51 per cent corn and aged in brand new charred-oak barrels. 

2. Then who uses the old barrels?

The used barrels are sent to other whiskey and scotch distilleries mainly in Europe and Japan. Even tequila and rum makers reuse the old barrels.

Now it’s young males and females who are drinking bourbon in cocktails.

3. The origin of bourbon is hotly disputed 

Southern Baptist minister Elijah Craig is seen as the inventor of bourbon by ageing the already popular corn whiskey or moonshine in the southern states in the 1780s. “Back then, they always said they made it for medicinal purposes, but they sent a lot of it south to New Orleans, where there was a large French community,” Russell says. Bourbon was a cheaper alternative to French cognac. 

4. Bourbon Street or Bourbon County

The American whiskey was first labelled as bourbon in 1840 before then the labels read Bourbon County Whisky, Russell says. Some say bourbon is named after Bourbon County in upstate Kentucky as the first distilleries started there. Bourbon County was much larger in the 1700s, encompassing 14 modern day counties. However, some historians attribute the name to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where many shipments of the Kentucky whiskey were sold. 

5. Interesting twist

Bourbon “founder” Reverend Craig’s distillery was never in Bourbon County but in Fayette County of Virginia, named after the Revolutionary War general, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, who defied King Louis XVI of the French royal House of Bourbon, by going to America to fight against the British.

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6. The Kentucky 8

Before Prohibition (1920-1933), there were more than 2,000 bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, now, according to Russell, there are only eight. However, the industry is as robust as ever, with most of today’s distilleries spread across the US. “There are 1,500 bourbon distilleries across the US,” Russell says. “But still 95 per cent of the bourbon comes from those eight distilleries.”

7. Bourbon demographics have changed

“The difference between now and when I started in the industry in 1981, is who is drinking our bourbon,” Russell says. “In my first 28 years, the main consumer was me – an over 50s male. Now it’s young males and females who are drinking bourbon in cocktails. My dad’s generation  didn’t think about cocktails. They drank it neat or on the rocks.”

 

8. The first ad for bourbon

The first advertisement for this home-grown brew was printed in the Western Citizen newspaper in Paris, Kentucky, in 1821.

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9. Let’s not talk about age

Most distillers do not talk about age when it comes to bourbon as it hits its peak after nine to 12 years – which to makers of scotch is considered young. The faster ageing process is due to Kentucky’s hot summers and cold winters.

10. Which luminaries enjoy their bourbon tipple
US president Thomas Jefferson was such a fan that he allocated farmers 60 acres to grow “local crops” in what became Bourbon County. Others include author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson;  Bill Clinton and Matthew McConaughey, who is Wild Turkey’s spokesperson.