Bourbon Basics


As I looked back through my past articles, I realized I haven’t really provided a understandable definition of what makes bourbon, well…bourbon. I’ve shared stories, recipes and even some history regarding the distilled spirit, but never why bourbon is the distinctive American spirit, that I love so much.

So here is a down and dirty overview of not only what bourbon is, but the qualifications that define it. Pay attention. Class is in session.

First of all Bourbon is a whiskey (or whisky). Whiskey is nothing more than a distilled spirit produced from fermented grains (mash). Grain varieties include rye, corn, wheat and barley. For example, Scotch is made from malted barley, Irish whiskey is also made of mostly barley and other cereal grains, Rye is made from mostly rye, Canadian whisky is also made of various cereal grains like rye, wheat and corn, and Tennessee whiskey is made from mostly corn. Bourbon is also made mostly from corn. In 1964 however, the U.S. Congress acknowledged, as defined in Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulation, that bourbon be recognized as a “distinctive product of the United States.” Although all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. And here’s why:

  1. Bourbon must be made in the United States (not only in Kentucky)
  2. Bourbon must be made from at least 51% American corn.
  3. Bourbon must be distilled at no higher that 160 proof
  4. Bourbon must be barreled at no higher than 125 proof
  5. Bourbon must be put into a new, charred oak container.

That’s it! So if a spirit that is produced and distilled according to the above regulations then it can be considered a bourbon.

What about the aging process you ask? Bourbon has no minimum specified age requirement actually and it doesn’t necessarily need to be aged in a barrel. As you can read from the regulations above, a new, charred oak container is all that is needed. In fact, Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey, Mater Distiller) was quoted as saying, “You can take a new charred, oak bucket and fill it up from the still, walk it over to the bottling line, fill the bottle with it and it would be bourbon. You’d have to put an age statement on it that it was aged less than a day, but it’d be bourbon. And if you wanted to do it again, you’d need a new bucket.” That being said, for bourbon to get its beautiful golden amber color it needs to age in the container for some time. The longer time spent in the charred oak container, the longer time the bourbon has to absorb the vanillins and tannins released by the wood that add the distinctive color, aroma and taste.

  • 0-4 years aged is when the bourbon picks up the majority of its color and some of the wood/smoke flavor.
  • 5-10 years aged is when the bourbon will grow a little darker and when the sweetness from the sugars in the wood will be absorbed.
  • 10 + years aged is when the complexity of the bourbon (fruit, sweet, herbal notes) may lessen. Although during this time period the bourbon will become smoother and obviously more “oaky” in taste.

The bourbon lost to evaporation during the aging process is know as the “Angel’s share” and the bourbon absorbed and trapped in the wood is referred to as the “Devil’s cut.

However there are several different types of bourbon as they relate to age. The most common are:

Kentucky Bourbon – Bourbon produced and aged in a new, charred oak container for the minimum of one (1) year in Kentucky.

Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Bourbon aged in new, charred oak containers for two (2) or more years. Most popular bourbon brands age their bourbon for at least four (4) years. If the bourbon is aged more than 4 years then the label does not need to contain an age statement. If less than 4 years, then it must according to law.

Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Bourbon made in Kentucky and aged in a new, charred oak container for a minimum of two (2) years.

Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Blend of straight bourbon whiskies.

Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon Whiskey – Bourbon aged in a new, charred oak container as the product of one distiller, one distillery from one distillation season. The bourbon must have been stored for a minimum of four (4) years in a federally bonded warehouse and then bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol).

A very important fact to remember is that bourbon does NOT have to be made only in Kentucky. It can be made anywhere in the U.S. as long as the above regulations are followed. Many states such as Colorado, New York, Texas and California have become prominent in today’s burgeoning bourbon market.

Despite the fact that bourbon can be produced in any state of the Union, ninety-five (95) percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky. Kentucky is bourbon’s birth place for several distinguishable reasons; water, wood and seasons.

  • Water – Kentucky sits on a vast stretch of limestone. Limestone is a natural filter that removes iron from water and adds calcium, magnesium as well as other nutrients.
  • Wood (oak) – The oak tree is the most prevalent species of tree in the state of Kentucky. Oak is naturally water-tight if milled properly. This fact, coupled with the abundance of oak, allowed coopers (barrel makers) to thrive in Kentucky.
  • Seasons – Kentucky is famous for its crazy temperature swings. The Bluegrass state endures brutally hot and humid summers followed by frigidly cold and dry winters. Kentuckians may not appreciate this climate disparity, but it is great for the aging process. The fluctuation in temperature forces the oak to contract and expand which allows the bourbon to interact more with the char providing it’s characteristically oak, caramel and vanilla flavors.

What about Jack Daniels? Is it a bourbon? Technically the answer is yes because it follows the above regulations that define a spirit as a bourbon. But the biggest difference is that Jack Daniels, which is classified as a Tennessee whiskey, purposely wants to be defined differently. Tennessee whiskey became a classification of whiskey in 2013 when the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill which added a step to bourbon’s federally regulated process. The added step requires the bourbon to be filtered through maple charcoal before being aged. The procedure is known as the Lincoln County Process. This added step is the only thing that differentiates Tennessee whiskey from bourbon whiskey.  By the way, Jack Daniels is the number one selling whiskey in the world, so whether you consider yourself a bourbon purist or not, you have to give mad props to Old No.7.

Armed with this new understanding, you are hopefully ready to enjoy bourbon at a much more pleasurable level. You can also feel confident in partaking in conversation on the subject. In fact, you may even find yourself dispelling popular bourbon myths that plague our beloved spirit.

But I can’t leave you without imparting some popular additional terms and classifications to broaden your bourbon education. Enjoy!

Small Batch –  Bourbon bottled from a selection of a certain number of barrels (determined by each distiller usually anywhere from 10-100 barrels from predetermined sections of the warehouse) typically much smaller than the amount used in the routine production.

Single Barrel – Bourbon bottled from one single barrel.

Barrel (Cask) Strength –  Bourbon that has no water added meaning it is the same proof in the bottle as it was when it came out of the barrel.

Flavored Bourbon – No such thing. Anything added to bourbon except water and more bourbon is merely a flavored whiskey. Flavors like Maple, Honey and Cinnamon are very popular. But brands that sell such spirits will never have the word “bourbon” on the label.

Sour Mash – Liquid left over from the distillation process when the grain solids and alcohol has been removed. A lot like the making of sourdough bread, a portion of sour mash (roughly 20%) is set back to add to the next batch. The sour mash process ensures an increase in the pH level helping the yeast strain to excel.

I hope you enjoy this article and I pray it shed some light on bourbon.

-The Bourboneer

Follow me on Facebook @thebourboneer.

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Kirkland Small Batch KSBW, (Costco’ Private Label) 51-1/2% ABV or 103 proof (aged 7 years) James B. Beam Distilling Co., Clermont Frankfort, KY.

References: Bourbon Curious, Fred Minnick, Zenith Press 2015, Minneapolis, MN. Stave and Thief, Executive Bourbon Steward manual, Distilled Spirits Epicenter 2015, Louisville, KY. American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, Clay Risen, Sterling Epicure 2013, New York, NY.

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