Is a Peated Bourbon Still Technically Bourbon?

Kings County Distillery is posing an interesting question with a new product, Peated Bourbon, which is made with, you guessed it, peat. Is it technically a bourbon?

There are very clear, strict rules for making bourbon. Among them, it must be made with 51 percent corn, and aged exclusively in new, charred oak barrels, for at least two years. But the bulk of the rules center on preventing companies from using additives: Bourbon can’t be artificially colored, or flavored.

That's an important issue in the debate over whether Tennessee whiskey (like Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel) meets all of the requirements. The official line: It's not, because it is filtered through maple charcoal, which adds a level of flavor.

So the question here: Is peat an additive? The official verdict is no. Peat sidesteps this restriction because it isn’t really an ingredient or additive — it’s a side effect of a process. 

Peated whiskey is actually just the result of grains like malted barley being dried over a smoky fire. With peated whiskeys like Lagavulin, that fire is fueled by peat. The process is similar to the way barbecue is cooked over wood chips instead of an electrical element.

This is important for bourbon, because while bourbon has to contain at least 51 percent corn, the remaining 49 percent can, and frequently does, include malted barley (single malts are required to be 100 percent malted barley).

And since malted barley has to be dried, choosing to dry it over peat instead of gas or electrical fires (like Kings County has used) isn’t against the rules — legally anyway. There are plenty of bourbons playing fast and loose with the rules these days, and purists may have a problem with that. But at least to the letter of the law, Kings County’s case is pretty solid.

One thing is for sure, it's all whiskey — and the Kings County's Peated Bourbon will likely intrigue both bourbon and scotch drinkers alike.