While there are many types of whiskey, there’s only one Bourbon. America’s native corn-based whiskey holds as one of the most popular spirits in the world, prized both for mixing into cocktails and sipping neat.
Some bottlings, like the sought-after Pappy Van Winkle lineup, have become collector’s items. And though Bourbon is deeply rooted in tradition, producers experiment with nearly every aspect, from the various grains used for its base to fancy barrel finishes and ever-climbing alcohol levels. No wonder Bourbon can generate such confusion.
What is Bourbon?
It’s an American whiskey, distilled from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak containers. Though Kentucky is known as the spiritual home of Bourbon, the spirit can be made in any US state.
How is Bourbon made?
It starts with the mash bill, aka the “recipe” of grains in the mix. That mash bill must contain at least 51% corn, but the other 49% can be any other grain: wheat, rye, oats, quinoa, you name it. It can even be 100% corn, if that’s what the distiller wants.
Those grains, “the mash,” are then cooked with water, and yeast is added to ferment the sugars. After fermentation is completed, which usually takes about three days, the liquid is now considered “distiller’s beer.”
Distillation is the next step. Producers can opt for column stills, which produces a lighter-style spirit, or pot stills, which produces a richer, more robust spirit. Either way, Bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof, or 80% alcohol by volume (abv). After distillation, the clear liquid is called “new make spirit,” although the more colorful term often used is “white dog.”
Most distillers then “proof” the whiskey by adding water, because of a second regulation: Bourbon must not be higher than 125 proof (62.5% abv) when put into the barrel.
The Bourbon then rests in brand-new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. There’s no minimum for how long the spirit needs to stay in the barrel, but most age at least a year or two. Many experts agree that Bourbon becomes mellower and better to drink with time in the barrel, and often peaks at about five to 10 years.
Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% abv). Some distillers blend various barrels together and then add water. Others bottle it at a higher alcohol level because that can be more flavorful. Still others add no water at all, referred to as cask strength.
What affects the flavor of Bourbon?
Pretty much every step outlined above affects the flavor in some way. However, the following may offer the most noticeable impact, according to distillers.
The mash bill: In addition to the familiar corn sweetness found in most Bourbon, two other grains contribute flavor to the whiskey, in particular.
When the mash bill includes a high concentration of rye grain as the second ingredient, it’s called a high-rye Bourbon. The rye can give a dry, spicy character to whiskey. When the mash bill includes a high concentration of wheat, it’s called a wheated Bourbon. Those can be a bit softer and sweeter, with flavors similar to white chocolate or cookie dough.
The quality of the grain also matters, says Conor O’Driscoll, master distiller at Kentucky’s Heaven Hill. His team avoids grain that’s musty, burned or otherwise damaged. “You can’t make good whiskey from bad grain,” he says.
The yeast: This tends to have a more nuanced effect, but there’s a reason that distillers are picky about the yeast strain used to ferment their mash. Some even keep it under lock and key.
Heaven Hill, for example, uses a proprietary strain rescued from a fire in 1996. “It’s a huge contributor to flavor,” says O’Driscoll. “Each strain of yeast has its own flavor compound.”
The barrel: Bourbon producers are required to use new charred barrels, so a significant amount of wood flavor is imparted into the whiskey, which may add vanilla, caramel or spice tones. The barrel also can sometimes add a subtle smoky or charred note.
“The barrel influences [the flavor of Bourbon] more than anything else,” says Fred Noe, master distiller for Jim Beam. “You get 100% of the color, and 60–70% of the flavor from the barrel.”
A secondary aging in used barrels also can add mild layers of fruit or spice to the Bourbon. This technique is called “finishing.”
Common Bourbon terms
A few terms you may spot on Bourbon labels:
Barrel Proof or Cask Strength: Both mean that the Bourbon has not been diluted or “proofed” with water. It has been bottled at the same strength as when it came out of the barrel or cask, and alcohol levels can vary widely. Whereas traditional Bourbon is usually 40–49% abv, barrel proof/cask strength typically starts at 50% abv and can range as high as 70% abv, although that’s extremely strong and not seen often. In addition, overproof spirits start at 50% abv.
Bottled-in-Bond: An at least four-year-old whiskey produced in a single distillery during a single distillation season and bottled at 50% abv (100 proof).
Kentucky Bourbon: The Bourbon must be distilled in Kentucky, and it had to have matured in the state for at least one year. It cannot be mixed with Bourbon from any other state. (Note: If it has another state on the label, it must follow the guidelines within that state.)
Single barrel: The Bourbon in the batch is sourced from one barrel. Barrel dimensions can vary, but a standard 53-gallon barrel yields typically fewer than 200 bottles.
Straight Bourbon: Must be aged for at least two years in new, charred oak.
How to identify a good Bourbon?
Look for balance, says O’Driscoll.
“You don’t want it to be overly smoky, woody or hot with alcohol,” he says. “You want a balance of those things.”
Compared to new make spirit, which can be harsh, he expects Bourbons to be mellower after time spent in barrels. “After four years, you want all those rough edges to be gone,” says O’Driscoll. “You want smoothness, complexity, a good, long finish on it.”
In addition, he says that Bourbons don’t need to be rare or expensive to be good.
“You don’t have to go chasing the big age statement or the $300 bottle,” he says. “Let someone else go stand in line for the $300 bottle. As you’re tiptoeing to reach the unicorns on the top shelf, take a minute to look at the middle shelf. There’s some good stuff there, too.”
Beam’s Noe says he employs a four-step process to assess a Bourbon’s quality, and he encourages consumers to do the same. First, look at the color. “Darker Bourbons tend to be more intense,” he says. “Lighter [Bourbons] are lighter on the palate.”
Second, notice the aroma. Is it sweet? Do you find it pleasing? Third comes the taste, and last, the finish, or the flavor left behind after the Bourbon is swallowed.
“If all of those tick a box for you, you’ve found a good Bourbon,” says Noe. It’s all about what’s pleasing to you, he says. That includes how you drink it, whether with ice, water, in a cocktail or straight.
“I tell people, drink it any damn way you want,” he says. “Bourbon is as versatile as any other spirit out there.”
Bourbon Producers to Try
While far from a comprehensive list, the following producers offer good Bourbons worth the effort to seek out.
Angel’s Envy: This Kentucky-based producer is named for the “angel’s share,” the portion of spirit that evaporates from the barrel during the aging process. Try the velvety, fruit-tinged Angel’s Envy Finished in Port Barrels.
Barrell Bourbon : Founder Joe Beatrice scours the country for special barrels of Bourbon, then blends them in his Kentucky facility.
Brown-Forman: Technically, this is a large conglomerate that spans various spirits categories. But the portfolio includes two of Kentucky’s top Bourbon brands: Woodford Reserve and Old Forester.
Buffalo Trace : Its namesake Bourbon is one of the best workhorses for your bar. But this Kentucky producer also turns out Blanton’s, which is packaged in a round bottle with a jockey on the stopper. There’s also Eagle Rare, and yes, the prized Van Winkle, aka Pappy.
Four Roses: This 132-year-old Kentucky distillery cranks out an excellent lineup of single-barrel and small-batch offerings.
Heaven Hill: Headquartered in Bardstown, Kentucky, its brands includes Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. Give one of O’Driscoll’s favorites a try: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, aged four years.
Mic.Drop: This notable newcomer sources and blends Bourbons worth the effort to find.