What is Bourbon

What is Bourbon: Guide to America's Classic Whiskey

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that has gained popularity and appreciation worldwide for its rich and distinct flavor profile. Primarily made from corn, this barrel-aged spirit originates in the United States and carries with it a unique history and strict regulations that set it apart from other whiskies. The name Bourbon possibly derives from the French Bourbon dynasty, with contenders for its inspiration being Bourbon County in Kentucky or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Understanding the basics of what makes bourbon unique involves delving into its production process, the different types available, and the flavor profile that enthusiasts have come to know and love. Additionally, bourbon has specific laws and regulations that dictate its creation and labeling, further distinguishing it from other spirits in the whiskey category.

There are numerous brands producing bourbon, each offering its own take on this classic American spirit. Serving suggestions and food pairings, along with the fascinating history and frequently asked questions surrounding bourbon, make this spirit captivating for both novices and connoisseurs alike.

Key Takeaways

  • Bourbon is a unique type of American whiskey primarily made from corn and distinguished by its production process and regulations.
  • Bourbon has a distinctive flavor profile and can be enjoyed in various forms, from neat to cocktails, with a range of brands offering their own interpretations.
  • The fascinating history, laws, and frequently asked questions about bourbon make it an enticing spirit for enthusiasts and novices alike.

Bourbon Basics

Origin and History

Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is considered America's native spirit. While it can be manufactured in any state, over 90% of bourbons consumed today originate from Kentucky. The popularity of bourbon increased following the Civil War, as it devastated much of Virginia's distilling culture. Kentucky is now known for its Bourbon Trail, which showcases the rich history and flavors of bourbon production.

The practice of aging whiskey and charring the barrels for better flavor had been known in Europe for centuries. However, the origin stories of bourbon are unconfirmed, and no single story carries more weight than the others.

Key Ingredients

Bourbon is a subcategory of whiskey, which is a spirit distilled from a fermented grain mash and often stored in barrels before bottling. The main difference between bourbon and other types of whiskey is the ingredients and its production process:

  • Bourbon legally must be distilled with a minimum of 51% corn.
  • All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Whiskey can be made anywhere in the world, whereas bourbon is only produced in the United States.
  • It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Other American whiskeys, like rye whiskey, are also part of the wider whiskey category, but they differ in their ingredients and production processes.

Production Process


Bourbon production starts with a sour mash, which consists of at least 51% corn and may include other cereal grains, such as rye and barley. These grains are ground together to create a thick mixture. This sour mash is combined with water, typically from a local natural source. The water's unique characteristics contribute to the bourbon's distinct flavor.

Fermentation occurs when yeast is added to the mixture, converting sugars in the grain into alcohol and other byproducts. This process often takes several days and results in the formation of a liquid known as the wash.


The wash is then distilled to concentrate the alcohol content and remove impurities. Bourbon is usually distilled using either column stills or traditional pot stills. Column stills are more commonly used due to their efficiency and continuous operation. The resulting distillate, called white dog or new make, typically has an alcohol content of around 60-80% by volume.

Aging and Bottling

After distillation, the bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels. The charring process caramelizes the sugars in the wood, allowing the bourbon to develop its signature flavors and colors during aging. Bourbon must be aged for at least two years, but many are aged for much longer periods. The longer a bourbon is aged, the more mature and complex its flavors will become.

Once aged to its desired maturity, the bourbon is diluted with water to reach its desired bottling proof, usually between 80-125 proof or 40-62.5% alcohol by volume. It is then bottled, labeled, and distributed for consumption. The entire production process, from fermentation to bottling, is carefully monitored and follows strict guidelines to ensure a high-quality, consistent product.

Types of Bourbon

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made primarily from corn, and it represents the most famous variation of American whiskey. Over the years, bourbon has evolved into multiple styles, each offering a distinct flavor profile. Here are some of the main types of bourbon you can find.

Standard Bourbon Whiskey is made from a mash bill that contains at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels. This type of bourbon usually has a heavier body and a sweeter, less spicy profile compared to rye whiskey.

Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey refers to bourbon that is produced specifically in the state of Kentucky. While not all bourbon must be made in Kentucky, the state is known for its long history and tradition of making high-quality bourbon.

Tennessee Whiskey is very similar to bourbon, as it is also made from a mash bill that contains 51% corn and is aged in new charred oak barrels. The main difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon lies in the filtration process called the Lincoln County Process, which gives Tennessee whiskey a distinct flavor.

Straight Bourbon Whiskey has been aged for a minimum of two years and contains no added colors or flavors. It offers a pure, unadulterated bourbon experience.

Small-Batch & Single-Barrel Bourbon are made in limited quantities, offering a unique and premium bourbon experience. Small-batch bourbons are created by blending a smaller number of barrels, while single-barrel bourbons come from one, individually-selected barrel.

Sour Mash Bourbon uses a portion of previously fermented mash in the new fermentation process, creating a consistent flavor profile from batch to batch.

Bottled In Bond Bourbon adheres to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, meaning it must be produced by one distiller in a single distillation season, aged for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof.

Blended Bourbon Whiskey is a mixture of different bourbons, which may also include other types of whiskey or neutral spirits. Blended bourbon offers a more versatile flavor profile.

High-Rye & Wheated Bourbon are types of bourbon that use a higher percentage of rye or wheat, respectively, in their mash bill. High-rye bourbon typically contains 15-35% rye, giving it a spicier flavor profile, while wheated bourbon replaces rye with wheat, resulting in a smoother, softer taste.

Each of these types of bourbon offers a unique experience for whiskey enthusiasts. With different flavors, production methods, and regional variations, there's a bourbon style to suit every palate.

Flavor Profile

Bourbon whiskey, America's native spirit, offers a diverse and enjoyable flavor profile. Being a tightly regulated product, the distinct characteristics of bourbon contribute to its popularity among whiskey enthusiasts worldwide.

The flavor of bourbon mainly stems from its primary ingredient, corn, which makes up at least 51% of the mash bill. The remaining grains in the mash bill, such as rye, barley, and wheat, also play a significant role in defining the taste. Factors like the distillation process, the location of the rickhouse, and aging further influence bourbon's flavor profile.

There are a few common flavor profiles experienced in bourbon, such as spicy rye, sweet, delicate, rich oak, wood charred, smooth & mellow, and corn. Here are some examples of bourbons associated with these flavor profiles:

  • Spicy Rye: Bulleit, Booker's, Redemption, Four Roses, Knob Creek, and EH Taylor.
  • Sweet: Maker's Mark, WL Weller, and Pappy Van Winkle.
  • Rich Oak: Woodford Reserve, 1792 Bourbon.

In addition to these flavors, bourbon may also exhibit fruity, creamy, and grain-forward notes, depending on factors like mash bill composition and aging. For instance, a high corn mash bill intensifies the sweet, soft, creamy, and fruity notes of the bourbon.

The bourbon industry also employs a tasting wheel that helps enthusiasts discern flavors and aromas in a structured manner. This tasting wheel includes categories like grains, wood, sweetness, fruits, and spices, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of the bourbon's flavor profile.

To sum up, bourbon whiskey offers an exciting and varied flavor palette for whiskey lovers. Understanding and appreciating these flavors is an essential part of the bourbon tasting experience.

Serving Suggestions

Bourbon is a versatile spirit that can be enjoyed in various ways. Here are two popular methods to enjoy bourbon - Straight or as part of a cocktail.


In its purest form, sipping a bourbon neat or with a few drops of water allows you to experience the rich flavors and aromas without any distractions. To do this, pour a small amount of bourbon into a glass and let it rest for a few moments to open up its flavors. Add a few drops of water, if needed, to mellow the taste and make the nuances more detectable. When sipping straight bourbon:

  • Take small sips, letting the bourbon coat your mouth and gently warm your taste buds.
  • Swish the bourbon lightly in your mouth before swallowing it to release its flavors.
  • Remember that the first sip might shock your taste buds; allow them to warm up and adjust as you continue to drink.


Bourbon-based cocktails are excellent alternatives for those who prefer their spirits mixed with other ingredients. Some classic bourbon cocktails include:

  • Old Fashioned: Bourbon, sugar, bitters, and a twist of orange peel.
  • Mint Julep: Bourbon, fresh mint leaves, sugar, and crushed ice.
  • Whiskey Sour: Bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes egg white.

When making bourbon cocktails:

  • Use high-quality ingredients to complement the bourbon's flavors.
  • Balance the drink by considering the sweetness, sourness, and strength of the components.
  • Experiment with different bitters and garnishes to find your perfect combination.

Whether you prefer your bourbon straight or mixed-in cocktails, the key is to appreciate its unique flavors and enjoy it responsibly.

Major Brands

Bourbon is an American whiskey primarily made from corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. It is a popular and distinct style of whiskey with a rich history and a variety of brands enjoyed by enthusiasts worldwide. In this section, we will explore some of the major bourbon brands that have become staples in the whiskey world.

Jim Beam is a well-known name in the bourbon industry, offering a range of products to suit different tastes and budgets. Their flagship product, Jim Beam White Label, is their bestselling bourbon and an excellent introduction to the brand. They also produce other expressions, such as Jim Beam Black, which is aged longer and offers a deeper flavor profile.

Buffalo Trace is another prominent bourbon brand, owned by the Sazerac Company. Buffalo Trace Distillery produces not only its namesake bourbon but also other revered brands like Eagle Rare and Van Winkle. With a lineup of high-quality bourbons, Buffalo Trace has garnered attention and accolades for its offerings.

Additionally, let's highlight some other notable bourbon brands:

  • Maker's Mark: Known for its distinctive red wax-sealed bottles and smooth, wheated bourbon.
  • Four Roses: A brand producing bourbons with unique recipes, resulting in various flavor profiles.
  • Wild Turkey: A robust, bold bourbon with a storied history and a strong following among enthusiasts.
  • Woodford Reserve: A premium bourbon brand known for its attention to detail, offering a refined and nuanced whiskey experience.

These major brands showcase the diverse world of bourbon whiskey, each with distinct features and flavors catering to a variety of preferences. Bourbon enthusiasts can explore these brands and their offerings to further appreciate this celebrated American spirit.

Laws and Regulations

Bourbon whiskey has specific requirements dictated by federal regulations in the United States, governing both production and labeling of the spirit. While many people associate bourbon with Kentucky, it can be legally produced in any state within the country. However, around 95% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky, contributing significantly to its reputation.

First and foremost, bourbon must be made using at least 51% corn, which is responsible for its characteristically sweet flavor profile. The rest of the mash bill comprises other grains, such as rye, wheat, and malted barley. These grains influence the final taste of the bourbon, with varying ratios leading to unique flavor profiles.

In order to be considered bourbon, the spirit must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. This process helps to infuse the whiskey with its distinct flavors, colors, and aromas. While there is no specific minimum aging requirement for bourbon, it needs to be aged at least two years to be classified as "straight bourbon."

Another important regulation is the distillation and bottling proof. Bourbon must be distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) and must enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume). Furthermore, bottled bourbon must be at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), ensuring a consistent profile and strength across various brands and styles.

For a bourbon to be labeled as "Bottled in Bond," it must meet additional criteria. Established under the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, these rules require the whiskey to be made during a single distillation season at one distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume).

In summary, bourbon is subject to a range of federal regulations in the United States that dictate its production, aging, labeling, and proof. Adherence to these laws ensures a consistent and quality product for consumers to enjoy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the legal requirements for a whiskey to be classified as bourbon?

To be classified as bourbon, a whiskey must meet several legal requirements. First, it must be distilled in the United States. Second, its mash bill (the combination of grains used in the production process) must consist of at least 51% corn. The remaining grains can be rye, wheat, or malted barley. Third, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Lastly, it cannot contain any artificial coloring or flavoring.

How does bourbon differ from scotch?

Bourbon and scotch are both types of whiskey, but they have distinct differences. The primary difference lies in their production method and location. Bourbon is made in the United States, while scotch is produced in Scotland. Bourbon uses a mash bill consisting mostly of corn, whereas scotch uses malted barley. Additionally, scotch is aged in used barrels, while bourbon requires new, charred oak barrels for aging. The result is that bourbon typically has sweeter, smoother flavors and scotch tends to have smokier, earthy flavors.

What are the top recommended bourbon brands?

There are numerous top-quality bourbon brands available, offering a range of flavor profiles and price points. Some of the most highly recommended brands include Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve, Eagle Rare, and Four Roses. Keep in mind that taste is highly subjective, so it's essential to explore different brands to find the one that suits you best.

Is there a specific region outside of Kentucky where bourbon can be produced?

While Kentucky is known as the birthplace of bourbon, it can be produced anywhere in the United States, according to legal requirements. A growing number of distilleries in states like Tennessee, Indiana, and New York are making notable bourbons. However, it's essential to remember that factors like regional climate and water sources can affect the taste and characteristics of bourbon.

Can bourbon be distilled from other grains besides corn?

As mentioned earlier, bourbon's mash bill must contain at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% can be a combination of other grains, such as rye, wheat, or malted barley. These grains contribute to the overall flavor profile of the bourbon, with rye providing spice and wheat giving it a sweeter, smoother taste.

Why isn't Jack Daniel's considered a bourbon?

Jack Daniel's, while also a whiskey made primarily from corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels, is not classified as bourbon due to its unique production process. The key difference lies in the use of the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging. This extra step, specific to Tennessee whiskey production, gives Jack Daniel's its distinct smoothness and differentiates it from bourbon.

← Older Post Newer Post →