Answer Man

Corn is main ingredient in bourbon

Bourbon must be distilled in new charred oak barrels.
Bourbon must be distilled in new charred oak barrels.

Q: I am trying to find straight bourbon, not a mix of bourbon and whiskey as most labels seem to indicate. What can I do?

M.S., of Belleville

A: Unfortunately, your knowledge of this popular beverage seems to be on the rocks. The first thing you should do is learn this neat but perhaps confusing rule from the world of distilled spirits: Although all whiskey is not bourbon, all bourbon is whiskey.

So even though you see products with labels that say “bourbon whiskey,” they are likely to be “straight bourbon.” And, believe it or not, you can thank the U.S. government for defining the differences between the two types of hard liquor so you are assured of enjoying bourbon if that is what the label says.

Whiskey is a drink made from fermented grain and usually aged in an oak barrel. It comes in various varieties (rye, rye malt, wheat, etc.), with each mix of grain requiring different ingredients and distilling processes.

But at least as early as the 1820s, folks around Kentucky began whipping up batches of their mountain dew using common corn. Finding it to their liking, they called it “bourbon,” although there seems to be some question whether the term came from Bourbon County, Ky., or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Either way, bourbon has become the most popular type of whiskey in the United States, thanks to such concoctions as the mint julep, which reigns supreme at the Kentucky Derby each May. Even now, many associate the spirit as being produced in and around Bourbon County, Ky., which takes its name from the once-powerful House of Bourbon in France that popped up in 1268.

The drink became so popular that the U.S. Congress in 1964 deemed it America’s “distinctive product.” But as Spider-Man might have said (had he been a government bureaucrat), with great power comes great regulation. To ensure the drink’s integrity, the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits requires all whiskey to meet the following standards if companies want to label and advertise it as “bourbon”:

First, it must be made in the United States from a grain mixture (i.e., “mash”) made up of at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged in new (not old) charred oak barrels. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof after being put into the barrels at no more than 125 proof. It must be bottled at no less than 80 proof. Finally, it can contain no added flavorings, colorings or other additives.

Distillers who follow these rules can market their whiskey as bourbon. If their product is aged at least two years, it can be called “straight bourbon.” But since almost all bourbons in the United States are aged at least four years and then some, it’s likely that almost any bottle you see with “bourbon” or “bourbon whiskey” on it is “straight.” Just look for how long the bourbon has been aged.

Several Kentucky distilleries brag that their products are made from water that has been filtered by the limestone shelf found in Bourbon County, but federal regulations do not cover water. To add to the confusion, some companies — like the popular Jack Daniel’s (which Frank Sinatra once called “the nectar of the gods”) — simply label their products as “Tennessee whiskey” even though it meets the manufacturing standards of straight bourbon.

To dig deeper into the subject and sniff out possible brands to try, you might go to, which offers a long list of FAQs and easy links to numerous distilleries, including A. Smith Bowman, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. Or simply visit a respected liquor store and chat with a knowledgeable clerk or manager.

Q: Does anyone recycle the plastic foam packing materials used for shipping by many mail-order companies? Also: I recently read where they’re now using worms to eat this stuff. Is there a place around the metro-east using this new technique?

M.W., of Fairview Heights

A: As you obviously know, we continue to be far better at cranking out this stuff than we are at recycling it.

Every year, for example, it is estimated that Americans throw away 25 billion plastic foam cups, which, in turn, are a tiny part of the 33 million tons of plastic we toss annually. Less than 10 percent is recycled while the rest can contaminate water and poison animals.

If you save the common packing peanuts, you might try taking them to a store that offers shipping services such as All in Shipping in Belleville or a UPS store, where I’ve had success before. You might even ask if they might have use for other varieties of the stuff. I’m unaware of other alternatives, although I am always eager to hear other solutions.

As for your worm-eaten answer, it is still in its very earliest stages. What you saw were the results of an experiment at Stanford University that garnered national headlines last fall. There, Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer, and his team fed pill-sized pieces of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene to 100 mealworms.

They found that the creatures turned half the foam into carbon dioxide while the rest was excreted as biodegraded fragments that looked like rabbit droppings. The process took just 24 hours, an amazing feat when you consider that such foam otherwise may take decades or centuries to degrade in nature. Moreover, the worms did quite well on the diet for a month and their waste appeared usable as soil. Understanding exactly how those bacteria in the worms’ guts work their magic could produce new recycling options.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” Wu predicted.

Today’s trivia

Some say the first man to distill bourbon whiskey had what profession?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Most states likely have dozens, hundreds or even thousands of escalators in government buildings, skyscrapers and shopping malls within their borders. But according to a 2013 issue of The Atlantic, the entire state of Wyoming still had only two: one at the First National Bank of Casper and the other at Hilltop National Bank, also in Casper.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer