Bourbon is a household term, and you usually hear it when someone wants to refer to a specific type of Whiskey. But despite it being such a common expression, not many know what the term Bourbon actually means. And even fewer do know that Bourbon is strictly regulated – not to mention that there is an area in the world where Bourbon does not have to be Whiskey.
If you’re not so much into Whiskey, the difference between Bourbon and other types might not be that obvious. They look similar, smell similar, and even if Bourbon shows this typical sweetness, there isn’t any apparent difference. And it doesn’t diminish the confusion that referring to Bourbon as Whiskey isn’t wrong. It’s just not the entire truth.
So let me shed some light on this iconic American spirit. But first, I want to explain some things about Whiskey in general.
What is Whiskey?
Whiskey is a barrel-aged spirit made of fermented grain. The kind of grain, the place of production, and the barrel used for aging ultimately determine the type of Whiskey.
For the grain, corn, barley, rye, and wheat are the most common ingredients. The specific composition of those grains is what Whiskey producers call the “mash bill”. This carefully blended mix of components determines what kind of Whiskey will be the result.
What is Bourbon?
A Bourbon is a specific type of Whiskey. Originating in Kentucky, a Bourbon mash bill must consist of a grain mix with at least 51% corn. Sweet corn is also the reason for the distinct sweet taste you get from a Bourbon. No other Whiskey offers a similar sweetness. That is also the reason why cocktail recipes that include Bourbon shouldn’t be made with other Whiskey. -Unless you deliberately aim for a different flavor profile, of course.
But, of course, the mash bill isn’t the only requirement a spirit has to meet to be called Bourbon Whiskey. There’s a lot more to it.
When is a spirit considered a Bourbon?
We now know that Bourbon gets produced from a grain mix dominated by sweet corn. But there are many more regulations for making a Bourbon, starting with distillation. The mash mix has to be distilled at 160 proof (80% ABV) or less. -To put that into perspective, other types of Whiskey are allowed to have up to 190 proof (95% ABV) at this stage.
The ABV in the distillation process must be lower to keep as much of the character from the corn and other grains as possible. The higher the proof, the closer we get to pure alcohol. And by this, the flavors and aromas get more and more lost, resulting in an almost neutral taste.
The next step, the aging process, also has some additional regulations. The first being the barrel itself. Only new and freshly charred barrels made of oak are allowed for aging Bourbon Whiskey.
Further, before filling these barrels, the distillate has to be watered down to 125 proof (62,5% ABV) or less. Only pure water is allowed in this process. No additives are permitted. -Not during this step and also not when bottling the final product. That means no color adjustment, no blending with other spirits, no additional sweetening is allowed.
While aging in brand-new oak barrels, our Bourbon acquires its typical taste and amber-hued color. In fact, up to 80% of the flavor in the final product comes from the barrel. That probably explains why only fresh barrels are allowed.
Finally, the product is bottled and sold. And, believe it or not, also for the bottling, there’s a law. The Bourbon must have at least 80 proof (40% ABV). What is interesting, though, is that Bourbon does not have to age for a specified time. Only some sub-types like straight Bourbon Whiskey (min. two years) and bottled-in-bond (min. four years) have aging rules.
Not always from Kentucky
Kentucky is the home of Bourbon. But even if Bourbon gets most often produced there, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The regulation regarding the production site is that as an original American product, it has to be manufactured in the US to be called Bourbon. And therefore, you could produce Bourbon in every state.
However, in reality, only a few dare to produce it. Kentucky accounts for 95% of the global Bourbon production. There’s even a sub-type called “Kentucky Bourbon”. Obviously, this type has to be distilled and also aged in Kentucky.
The taste of Bourbon
The taste of Bourbon is not regulated. But when looking at the rules that apply for the Bourbon production process, the final products will inevitably have many similarities. Bourbon typically has a sweet taste to it, brought in from the corn. Throughout the aging process, the spirit acquires additional aromas. That can be, for instance, vanilla, caramel, spice, and, naturally, oak.
But don’t get me wrong. Even if the flavor is comparable amongst brands, there are still noticeable differences regarding taste and quality.
Bourbon is a classic. And as it was widely available at times bartending and Mixology started, Bourbon is featured in many classic drinks. It’s probably most famous for its use in the Mint Julep served at Kentucky Derby, Old Fashioned, and the Manhattan. You see, all of them are super popular and still get served all around the world.