Bourbon is so deeply rooted in American history that Congress officially named it America’s Native Spirit in 1964. Bourbon tends to be synonymous with its state of birth, Kentucky, and today, most of the world’s bourbon — approximately 95% — is still produced there.
There’s a lot to learn about bourbon, which is why we’ve created this simple beginner’s guide to help you better explore and understand this world-famous whiskey.
The Rules of Bourbon
First of all, what is a bourbon? It’s one of six distinct types of American whiskey, the making of which is serious business: strict definitions and Federal laws must be followed before a whiskey can ever be called a bourbon.
- To meet the guidelines to be considered bourbon, a whiskey must be:
- ◆ composed of 51 percent corn mash
- ◆ aged in new charred oak barrels
- ◆ distilled to no more than 160 proof
- ◆ put into barrels at no more than 125 proof
- ◆ bottled at no less than 80 proof
- ◆ made in the U.S.
Types of Bourbon
Meeting all the guidelines to be called a bourbon is only the first step. There’s a lot more behind the scenes that goes into each of the three distinct types:
Straight bourbon must be aged for at least two years. If it’s older than that, but younger than four years, it must carry an age statement reflecting the youngest bourbon in the bottle. This category has additional legal requirements beyond those of regular bourbon, including not having any colorings or flavorings added to it. Keep in mind, you may see a bottle labeled “straight bourbon” that doesn’t have an age: this means it is at least four years old.
You have to be careful when selecting a blended bourbon. While a skillful blend can create an exceptional flavor, it can also be used by the maker to save money. There are absolutely some well-crafted blends… and then there are those that have sacrificed the quality for cheaper components.
The legal definition of bourbon states that it must come straight from the barrel in a single batch, but companies may sell a blended whiskey that contains some bourbon. Blending can be used artfully to enhance the texture and flavor of the liquor, or it can be used as a money saving technique that risks destroying the overall quality.
Sometimes neutral grain spirits are used to raise the alcohol content of a blended whiskey, and these are much less expensive to produce. This type of whiskey also tastes much less expensive because the oak barrel aging can be watered down by the addition of unoaked spirits. Luxury batches produced by high class companies might blend together particularly fine whiskeys to achieve a deep, palatable taste. These whiskeys tend to be much more expensive, and in turn are more difficult to get your hands on.
Sour Mash Bourbon
The technique used to create bourbon and preserve its flavor from one batch to the next is referred to as sour mash. A whiskey maker wants to leave his mark with a stand out product while maintaining the signature taste from batch to batch. Bourbon flavor can be difficult to control from year to year, because the liquor is produced straight and cannot be blended to achieve flavor control. To offset this, the whiskey maker uses some of the mash from last year’s batch to make the new one. This is the sour mash, and it translates the distinctive flavor from year to year and batch to batch. You can count on sour mash bourbons for an incredibly consistent taste.
Bourbon’s Appearance, Flavor, and Aroma
The mahogany color associated with bourbon is largely due to the solvent nature of alcohol. Stored in wood barrels, pigment compounds from the wood leach into the alcohol, and the longer it has been aged, the darker it will appear.
There are a lot of flavors you may pick up on while sipping a glass of bourbon. Most often, you can expect bourbons to have understated notes that won’t overpower, making them ideal for serving straight up or in cocktails. Like sipping a glass of fine wine, taking in the aromas and flavors of bourbon is a big part of the experience.
- There are quite a few flavors and aromas of bourbon, and the most common include:
- ◆ Sweet: vanilla, caramel, honey and toffee
- ◆ Fruity and floral: apple, pear, dark fruit (figs, raisins, dates), citrus, and rose
- ◆ Spicy and herbal: black pepper, tobacco leaf, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon
- ◆ Woody: such as oak, cedar, pine, almonds, and pecans
- ◆ Grainy: such as corn, malt, and rye
Where Bourbon is Made
As we’ve already mentioned, almost all of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky. Incredibly, at any given time, Kentucky has over 5.3 million barrels in the process of aging. (That’s a lot of whiskey.) It is such a thriving business, it brings the state $8.5 billion annually, and bourbon is now being produced in all 50 states.
- Some bourbons made in Kentucky:
- ◆ Rockcastle
- ◆ Woodford Reserve
- ◆ Bulleit Barrel Strength
- ◆ William Heaven Hill
- ◆ Maker’s Mark Private Select
- ◆ Evan Williams
- ◆ Michter’s
- A few other fine bourbons made outside Kentucky:
- ◆ McKenzie Bourbon (New York)
- ◆ Hudson Baby Bourbon (New York)
- ◆ Belle Meade Bourbon (Tennessee)
- ◆ Koval (Illinois)
- ◆ Featherbone Bourbon (Michigan)