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.

You Don’t Have to be a Snob!


In my education of bourbon over the last several years, I’ve witnessed multiple acts of snobbery that have, quite frankly, turned me (and others) off from enjoying bourbon to the fullest. There have been several disappointing incidents my memory can recollect but, very recently in fact, I can recall patronizing a well known bourbon establishment on Louisville’s Whiskey Row. A customer ordered an Old Fashioned and requested that Blanton’s be the bourbon of choice in the very popular cocktail. The bartender, shaking his head and smirking in disgust, immediately questioned the customer’s selection imparting that, in his opinion “using Blanton’s in an Old Fashioned or any cocktail, is a waste.” Inferring that Blanton’s is too good, too fine of a bourbon to be watered down in a cocktail.

Wait a minute! Now I certainly agree that Blanton’s is a fine, fine bourbon. It’s actually in my top three, and I prefer it with just one ice cube. But I thought a bartender’s responsibilities were to make drinks, gently guide customers and more importantly make money for the establishment that employs them? No?

I understand the bartender’s underlying intentions may have been to steer the customer into making the best selection possible (I am sure he was uber knowledgeable and has forgotten more about bourbon that I will ever know). I also took into consideration that we were in Kentucky where bourbon is king and flows as abundantly as the water, so choosing a bourbon from the thousands of offerings could be quite daunting. I get all that, I really do! However, that’s not where I had the issue. No matter how educated or bourbon savvy the bartender may have been, his delivery came across as elitist and, well, quite snobbish. His approach lacked tact and  alienated the customer without taking the time to understand their level of knowledge before deciding to opine his own. Not to mention that his recommendation cost the bar money and a decent tip for himself. But maybe I am looking at this the wrong way. Maybe his comments saved the customer money. Maybe he was just having a bad night. Hard to determine. But no matter how you look at it, I feel the encounter could have been handled more professionally.

As the Bourboneer (and as an Executive Bourbon Steward (EBS)) it is my job to teach about and promote America’s native spirit. We know that bourbon was born here. We know that it was regulated here, perfected here and represents a prominent thread intricately woven into the fabric of our great history. Therefore it clearly should be protected and most importantly, championed here. Bourbon is part of our culture and thankfully this culture is on the rise once again. Those of us who truly consider ourselves bourbon lovers are members of an inclusive society. We are passionate advocates, enthusiasts and proficient imbibers versed in the knowledge, heritage, art and culture of bourbon. We are Bourboneers! Our promotion of bourbon is crucial in preserving and growing it’s popularity as we move forward.

All bourbon is good, some is just better than others.

As an EBS, my role derives itself from the education of bourbon and of course the hospitality that goes along with the offering of a memorable learning bourbon experience. Teaching others or imparting my knowledge in a welcoming, respectful and professional manner is my strength and in fact an honor. Being hospitable and providing the best experience to those thirsty for knowledge is my primary concern. Not just for the interested, but for the efficacy of expanding the love of bourbon as America’s distinctive spirit. I feel the bartender I refer to in this article, failed to consider this. If you focus on where he actually was employed and where this establishment was located, I know more was expected by not only me, but more so by the the customer served.

So having said all of that, I believe there should be no hard and fast rules to drinking bourbon. It doesn’t only have to be served “neat” to enjoy. Or on the rocks, or with water or in a cocktail. It doesn’t have to only be from  Kentucky or aged more than 4 years to be considered good. Bourbon is to be enjoyed by all. Remember, individuals will drink what they enjoy and what taste best to them no matter how much you may expand their bourbon IQ. Not everyone has the same preferences, is adept or is interested in the intricacies of bourbon and its characteristics. You don’t have to be a snob! You don’t have to stick your nose up in the air if someone wants 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle with diet ginger ale. If that’s truly what they want then that’s what they should order, even if just the thought of that concoction makes you cringe. The idea is to promote bourbon not isolate it. My personal experiences and preferences should not dictate anyone’s taste. I don’t ever want the enjoyment of bourbon to be tainted strictly by my own opinions. Individuals need to decide their own preferences. If done correctly and with hospitality, the bestowing of my knowledge and my experience will be the catalyst to their long love of bourbon. And that is what loving bourbon and being a Bourboneer is all about. Right?

-The Bourboneer


Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Why Blanton’s of course! Blanton’s KSBW, 46-1/2% ABV or 93 proof NAS) Blanton Distilling Company, Frankfurt, Ky.

THIS IS AN URGENT NEWS UPDATE: September is National Bourbon Heritage Month


Earlier this month I posted an article on September being National Bourbon Heritage month. In that article I stated that my 2016 contribution in paying homage to this most outstanding of months was to “force” myself to enjoy bourbon each of the 30 days of September. I also mentioned that I planned to sample as many bourbons from different states as possible. When I wrote the article I was only a week into the month but off to a really great start. Here is what I had tallied at the time:

9/1/16 – Kentucky (Knob Creek), 9/2/16 – Colorado (Tin Cup), 9/3/16 – Tennessee(Jack Daniels – Tennessee whiskey), 9/4/16 – Illinois (Koval), 9/5/16 – Alabama(Clyde Mays), 9/6/16 – California (Cyrus Noble), 9/7/16 – Virginia (Belmont Farms), tomorrow 9/8/16 – New York (my neighbors Hudson Baby bourbon).

Since then however, I’ve run into difficulty completing my challenge. Not in the area of enjoying bourbon every day of the month, but actually finding bourbon offerings from different states. I even discovered that labels such as Cyrus Noble (above) were actually a Kentucky bourbon (Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY) aged in another location like San Francisco, California and not produced there. Although it seems very misleading, many distilleries outside of Kentucky make this a practice and I really can’t blame them. No place in the world makes better bourbon than Kentucky…no place anywhere ! So when I thought I had sampled 8 different state offerings I really, in all actuality, had only sampled 7 (boo!). I did contemplate getting a membership with Caskers Whiskey Club (absolutely a wonderful online store) so I could order those hard to find bourbons, but the need to foolishly squander my money on such things as food and a mortgage, prevented me from doing so.

From September 8th moving forward to the end of the month, here is how I finished my challenge:

9/11/16 – Utah (High West American Prairie Bourbon), 9/17/16 – Indiana (Redemption), 9/22/16 – Vermont (No.14 Bourbon) and finally 9/30/16 – Texas (Garrison Brothers – only a shot however. It was pricey). You can fill in the other 19 days with bourbon produced in  Kentucky from one distiller or another.

So if you are keeping score, that is 11 different bourbons from 11 different states (it should have been 12 for 12. Damn you, Cyrus Noble!). I consider this challenge a mild success, but will use it as motivation to perform much better next year.

-The Bourboneer


Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Jim Beam Double Oak, 43% ABV or 86 proof (no age statement) Clermont Frankfurt, KY.