When I was working at United Distillers in the early 1990s, we were looking at the regional differences of single malt Scotch whisky. In Scotland, these regions are geographical with differences such as distilleries on the sea coast or getting their water from peat bogs. We also discussed the idea of different regions for Bourbon styles. The more we looked at the subject, the more we decided that there were not enough differences in Kentucky to have unique regions for Bourbon to have an impact on the flavors of the whiskey. However, in the last 30 years, things have changed. Bourbon is made in places in the United States other than Kentucky. There could very well be regional differences in styles and flavors across the country. I thought I would look at some possible regions for Bourbon styles.
Kentucky is the home of Bourbon, but in reality, it should be the Ohio River Valley. The limestone shelf that has made Kentucky’s water so famous for making Bourbon, was created by an inland sea that covered all of Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. The climate in these areas is very similar with comparable amounts of rain, snow and hot summers. This should be a region to consider.
Next, I would look at the northeast with Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states. The winters are colder and the summers cooler. There is not as much limestone water, but there are granite springs in areas that don’t have limestone water. These differences make the region unique. The upper midwest states could also be included in this region but could also be a region of their own.
The southern states should also be a region. Hot summers and warmer winters have a unique effect on the whiskey. The sea coast could also change the way the whiskey ages with distilleries close to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Texas Bourbon has its own characteristics but could fall into this region. The midwest region should be unique not so much for geography, but because it is the origin of much of the grains used to make whiskey.
The Rocky Mountains have dramatic geography and climate. They have several distilleries located in this region and could be a stylistic region of its own. The final region would be the west coast states, with California, Oregon and Washington State making up the west coast region. This could be broken down even more by creating a southern, Mediterranean climate and a northern, temperate rainforest region on the west coast.
Once the regions are delineated, regional similarities in flavor could be determined. To do this, there would have to be at least four or five distilleries, making and maturing whiskey in the region, to examine their products for regional style. Even then, this could be difficult, for unlike Scotch, which is made only from barley, Bourbon can be a complex mix of grains. American distillers, unlike Scottish distillers, also have always placed an emphasis on the qualities of yeast. In modern time, commercial yeast is available across the country so a distiller on the west coast may be using the same yeast as a distiller in New England, and getting similar flavors. Reverse osmosis water is often used by distilleries today, eliminating differences in flavor from the water.
Determining if Bourbon styles can be affected by the region would be a difficult task. These stylish differences work well with Scotch whiskey, but probably cannot be detected in Bourbon. The only way to really determine if such regional differences exist in Bourbon would be to make the same whiskey, using the same mash bill, and yeast in each region and look for the differences. Until that happens, this will remain an interesting theory, but not a marketing reality.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller