Political differences aside, most of us agree that America is the greatest country on earth. America is also a country that produces fine wine, excellent craft beer and outstanding spirits. Bourbon is a truly American spirit. In 1963, it was declared by Congress to be a distinctive product of the U.S.

There is some debate on whether bourbon derived its name from Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Bourbon County in Kentucky. Although Kentucky produces 95 percent of the bourbon made in the U.S., bourbon can be produced in any state.

Family lore says that my maternal grandfather made corn whiskey during prohibition. I doubt it tasted anything like the fine bourbon produced today, but I’m told he sold a lot of it!

My grandfather’s whiskey may have been bourbon had he followed a few strict rules in place today governing what whiskies can be labeled bourbon.

Although all bourbon must be aged, there is no specific number of years mandated. I doubt my grandfather’s whiskey was around long enough to be aged.

When it comes to bourbon, the barrel rules. All barrels used to make bourbon must be of new American oak, the inside must be charred, and the barrels may not be used again for the production of bourbon.

Additionally, bourbon must be made from mash that is a minimum of 51 percent corn. The remaining 49 percent is usually wheat, barley, rye or any combination. The use of corn in bourbon lends a sweeter taste profile distinguishing it from malt whiskey such as scotch.

According to Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, five factors affect how whiskey will taste: water source, grain recipe, fermentation process, distillation process and maturation in oak.

What is the difference between bourbon produced in Kentucky and Tennessee? Aside from variables in the five main factors listed above, after distillation Tennessee bourbon is filtered through sugar maple charcoal.

Bourbon made with the addition of rye has a spicy, earthy taste profile. Rye bourbon is a hit with the market right now, and many producers are adding rye bourbon to their lineup.

Straight bourbon simply means that the bourbon has been aged a minimum of two years. If the label also tells you it is Kentucky straight bourbon, then it was obviously produced in Kentucky.

Small batch bourbon is made from a small number of barrels from the distillery on the label. The definition of small varies from distillery to distillery as there is no set standard required for this label.

Bourbon labelled single barrel means the bourbon came from one barrel. A single barrel holds 53 gallons of bourbon. Barrel to barrel can yield different taste profiles and blending barrels produces a different product.

Barrel proof bourbon is like dynamite! It remains the strength it was when taken from the barrel. No water is added to the bourbon to lower the alcohol by volume.

High-end bourbons are meant for sipping. Bourbon is used in a variety of mixed drinks, but purists agree that unique, flavorful bourbons should not be diluted. However, the master distiller for Jim Beam believes “you should drink it any damn way you please.”

Bourbon is a hot commodity right now. Smaller production of specific bourbons have kept bourbon lovers searching for these limited release bourbons that are hard to come by and not just in South Dakota.

Pappy Van Winkle is the most well known of these allocated bourbons. It is not known how many cases are available each year. Very few bottles make it to South Dakota, and when they arrive, they go fast!

The Van Winkle distillery was founded in 1874. It is now owned by the Sazerac Company and is produced at its Buffalo Trace Distillery from the original recipe. The Van Winkle recipe is a sweeter mix of corn, wheat and barley malt. The wheat allows for a more graceful aging.

If you can’t find Pappy Van Winkle, don’t worry, there are plenty of excellent bourbon choices available year-round.

Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon and Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon both made the Bourbon Bucket list. Some other great bourbons available in Rapid City include Jim Bean, Wild Turkey, Elijah Craig, Booker's, Woodford Reserve, Jefferson's, Maker’s Mark, Basil Hayden and High West.

With the Kentucky Derby just around the corner, now is the time to take a stroll down the “Bourbon Street” of your favorite liquor store and discover for yourself what bourbon is all about.

Kathy Smith is a co-owner of Smith's Liquor Gallery and the Independent Ale House in Rapid City and is a certified executive sommelier.

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