The Trick to Aging Legendary Kentucky Bourbon, Plus Recipes

In Kentucky, where 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced, there’s almost as much interest in the process as there is in the finished product. Almost.

According to Kentucky Distiller’s Association, a nonprofit trade group founded in 1880, this spirit production has increased more than 300 percent since 2000, reaching its highest level in more than 50 years. There are approximately 1.5 barrels of bourbon per resident in Kentucky (with a population of 4.45 million), aging gracefully until their debut. Bourbon typically reaches its peak after nine to 12 years.

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Kentucky is the only state in the United States with the ideal natural combination of climate, conditions and pure limestone water that is needed for producing the finest bourbon. In the United States, proof is measured on a scale of 200, meaning a 100-proof spirit would contain 50 percent alcohol. Bourbon must be aged at a maximum of 125 proof for at least two years and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.

Bourbon ages in top-quality barrels made of prime white oak. The interior of the barrel is first charred by setting fire to the wood for less than a minute. This is a complex science involving oak compounds and wood sugars. The goal of charring isn’t to add a smoky flavor, but instead to alter the character of the wood, causing a desirable outcome in the filled barrel. Flavors and color develop as the liquid moves in and out of the charred wood while aging.

The method of charring is divided into various levels, with No. 1 through No. 4 being the most common. A No. 1 char is maintained for just 15 seconds and No. 4 for 55 seconds. These exact conversions help explain why bourbon barrels are used only once. Otherwise, the bourbon’s consistency would be altered with the diluted chemical reaction between the spirit and barrel.

As you sip a fine bourbon, take notice of the distinct flavors, color, aroma and finish that’s achieved only through time and commitment as this liquid gold ages to perfection.

Old Fashioned

(the original Pendennis Club recipe)

  • 2 ounces fine Kentucky Bourbon
  • 1 tablespoon simple syrup (or 1/2 lump of sugar) 1/2 slice orange 1 cherry with stem 1 lemon twist 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Mix sugar, water and Angostura bitters in an old fashioned glass. Drop in a cherry and an orange wedge. Muddle into a paste using a muddler or the back of a spoon. Pour in bourbon, fill with ice cubes, stir and enjoy.

Derby Day Mint Julep

  • 1 1/2 cups packed chopped mint
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Julep cups or tall glasses
  • Kentucky bourbon
  • Mint sprigs
  • Shaved ice

The day before, make the minted simple syrup: Chop mint, including stems (much of mint’s flavor is in the stems). Put sugar and water in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until all the sugar is dissolved; add mint. Remove from heat, allow the mixture to come to room temperature, then strain it through a clean cheesecloth to remove any bits of cooked mint.

For each julep, take a cup, or tall glass, and fill with shaved ice. Pour in a jigger of bourbon and top with the simple syrup; stir gently. Add a sprig or two of mint and serve. It yields four to six servings.

Check back for Mona Hayden’s October issue story, “Kentucky Cookery: Celebrated Kitchens and Cocktails in Two Storied Cities,” publishing online this week.