What is Bourbon

Bourbon - How it's related to Whiskey

By Timo Torner / Last updated on June 24, 2022 
Bourbon is a specific type of Whiskey. A traditional spirit from The United States with strict regulations and a distinct flavor profile.

Bourbon is a household term. But despite it being such a common expression, many do not know what the term Bourbon actually means - apart from it being some sort of Whiskey. 

And even fewer do know how strictly regulated Bourbon is. And then, there are parts of the world where Bourbon isn't necessarily considered Whiskey, after all.

If you're not into Whiskey, the difference between Bourbon and other types is hard to tell. 

They look similar, smell similar, and even if Bourbon shows this typical sweetness, there isn't any immediately apparent difference. 

That is because Bourbon is a type of Whiskey native to Northern America, primarily made from corn. And again, to be labeled Bourbon, a Whiskey must fulfill a list of regulations and laws.

But before I get to those, I want to explain some things about Whiskey in general.

What is Whiskey?

Whiskey is an amber-colored, barrel-aged spirit made of fermented grain with at least 40% vol.

The kind of grain, the place of production, and the barrel used for aging ultimately determine the type of Whiskey.

Corn, barley, rye, and wheat are the most common ingredients. 

The specific composition of those grains is what Whiskey producers call the "mash bill". 

Also, if you wonder why some people spell Whiskey without an e and why spelling it with e is correct for Bourbon, read this article on Whiskey vs. Whisky.

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.

sweet corn

That, in turn, is why cocktail recipes that include Bourbon shouldn't be made with other types of Whiskey. -Unless you deliberately aim for a different flavor profile, of course.

But 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?

Apart from the grain mix dominated by sweet corn, there are many more regulations when making a Bourbon, starting with distillation.

Alcohol content

The mash mix must 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 you get to pure alcohol. And by this, the flavors and aromas slowly get lost. Eventually, that would result in an almost neutral taste.

New charred oak barrels

The next step, the aging process, also has strict regulations. The first is 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 needs to be watered down to 125 proof (62,5% ABV) or less.

Bourbon barrels

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, and no additional sweetening is allowed.

While aging in brand-new oak barrels, 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 also explains why only fresh barrels are allowed.

Aging of Bourbon

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 subtypes like straight Bourbon Whiskey (min. two years) and bottled-in-bond (min. four years) have aging rules.

Types and classification of Bourbon

Within the category of Bourbon Whiskey, you can again discern different types of Bourbon apart from the reference to aging times mentioned above. These are:

Traditional Bourbon

It fulfills all the requirements described above, and the mash bill usually exceeds the minimum of 51% corn significantly. A typical traditional Bourbon mash bill would be 70% corn, 15% rye, and 15% barley.

Rye Bourbon

As the name suggests, the mash bill of Rye Bourbon is heavier on the rye. It is a little less corn than in a traditional Bourbon, about double the rye, and only very little barley.

Wheat Bourbon

In a Wheat Bourbon, the rye gets replaced by wheat. So the main share still is corn, and the remainder is usually equal parts barley and wheat.

Bourbon

Single Barrel Bourbon

You might have guessed it. Single Barrel Bourbon is not a blend of Whiskey aged in different barrels like most Bourbon is. 

It's all from one cask. Because the characteristics like taste, color, etc., vary from barrel to barrel, no batch is like the other.

Small Batch Bourbon

Small Batch also refers to the blend. It means the number of barrels is smaller than it usually is. 

There's no official limit for the number of barrels, but often it's not more than 100.

Unfiltered Bourbon

Unfiltered Bourbon has a less clear, almost opaque appearance because microparticles remain in the spirit. The idea is that you keep all the flavors from the barrel.

Bourbon is 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. Hence, you could produce Bourbon in every state.

However, in reality, only a few attempt to produce it. Kentucky accounts for 95% of the global Bourbon production. 

There's also a sub-type called "Kentucky Bourbon". Obviously, this type has to be distilled and aged in Kentucky.

The taste of Bourbon

The taste of Bourbon is not regulated. But when looking at the rules that apply to the Bourbon production process, the final products will inevitably have many similarities. 

Bourbon typically has a sweet taste coming from the corn. Throughout the aging process, the spirit acquires additional aromas. That can be, for instance, vanilla, caramel, spice, and, naturally, oak.

Bourbon

Yet, even if the flavor is comparable amongst brands, there are still noticeable differences regarding taste and quality. 

You can experience the tasting notes and different aromas of a Bourbon best if you drink it neat in one of the different types of Whiskey glasses designed for the purpose.

Why and when is Bourbon not considered Whiskey?

In European countries, Whiskey needs to age for a minimum of three years before you can even legally call it Whiskey in the first place. 

With regular Bourbon having no specific requirement in terms of how it must be aged, some producers stay below that three-year mark. So these Bourbons technically do not qualify as Whiskey in European countries.

Thus, the claim that all Bourbon is Whiskey but not all Whiskey is Bourbon is not entirely true. It's more like not all Bourbon is Whiskey, and not all Whiskey is Bourbon. 

But no need to panic. Most popular Bourbon brands barrel-age their spirits for three years or more. 

For instance, the best-seller from Jim Beam is aged four years. And if you now instantly thought of Jack Daniel's, that's not Bourbon, really. It's Tennessee Whiskey. You can read more about this in the article on Jim Beam vs. Jack Daniel's.

Bourbon cocktails

Bourbon is a classic. And because it was widely available in the US, bartenders and mixologists started using it in many classic drinks. 

Mint Julep cocktails

It's probably most famous for its use in the Mint Julep -served at Kentucky Derby-, the Old Fashioned, the Boulevardier Cocktail, and the Manhattan

All of the above are widely popular and get served all over the world.

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