Sitting on my desk is a tumbler of bourbon. Its deep amber color shines out through the dewy glass. Tom’s Foolery is its whimsical name. It is 90 proof (45 percent alcohol by volume) and tastes of corn, apple, vanilla and barrel char. It is a little fiery, despite being aged three years. A new whiskey from Kentucky, you may wonder? Nope, this bourbon is from Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
It is a common misperception that bourbon “by law” can only be made in Kentucky. As this bottle shows, bourbon can be made anywhere in America. Federal regulations declare: “the word ‘bourbon’ shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States.” These same regulations require bourbon to be made from a recipe that uses not less than 51 percent corn as fermentables, and that the whiskey be aged in barrels made from new oak. That is all.
Kentucky, for certain, has a good claim as the birthplace of bourbon. As whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery notes in Bourbon Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, the state was shipping its whiskeys down the Mississippi River to New Orleans 200 years ago. “Bourbon,” as best we can guess, is a moniker that folks back then used to refer to the hooch coming from the great swath of Kentucky that was then part of Bourbon County.
Today, most bourbon comes from Kentucky. Jim Beam alone is filling a half-million barrels per year. But Indiana long has which produced an ocean of whiskey and new bourbon-makers are popping up everywhere. More than 20 states have bourbon distilleries, according to data from the American Distilling Institute. Ohio alone has a half-dozen small Bourbon-makers.
These new makers of bourbon frequently break from the common mold. Tom’s Foolery is aged first in new oak barrels (per the federal regulations), then finished in casks that formerly held applejack, the potent apple-based booze. Grass Widow (91 proof/45.5 percent ABV) is distilled in Indiana, then spends its last aging days in barrels that once held Madeira, a fortified red wine. The effect is a very unbourbon bourbon. Grass Widow has a corn sweetness, but also is fruity and a bit herbal tasting. Missouri’s Pinkney’s Bend Distillery offers bourbons aged in stout beer and port wine barrels.
All of which means that I should not feel bad that this bottle — and glass — of Tom’s Foolery is nearly empty. There are many more new bourbons to try.