What is Bourbon?

What is BourbonAhh yes, the word that everybody loves to throw around; bourbon.  Whiskey drinkers around the world use this word, but often out of context.  Not all American whiskey is bourbon.  In fact, my next review will be Michter’s Unblended American, a small batch whiskey distilled in bourbon country, but does not qualify as a bourbon.

So what’s the difference?  And why does the allure of this word create such a fuss for whiskey experts?  And why should it matter to the casual whiskey drinker?

One of the great things about whiskey around the world is how highly regulated it is.  Of course, when we hear the word “regulation”, our minds immediately shift to politics and whichever end of the spectrum the media has steered us to at this present time.  When it comes to whiskey, regulation is a good thing.  Because of the strict rules associated with distilling spirits, the consumer (you) get all the benefits of a high-quality end product.  If there was no regulation, you could just as well be drinking grain alcohol.

Whiskey can only be called “bourbon” when it meets a clear set of criteria.  If a distiller misses, or adds to, any of the procedures outlined below, the whiskey cannot be called bourbon.

  • Bourbon is whiskey produced from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn.
  • The spirit reaches no more than 80% ABV in the final distillation, and can be put into the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV.
  • The barrel must be made of new, charred oak, and the whiskey must stay in the barrel at least two years to be labeled straight whiskey; if it is aged less than four years, the age must be stated on the bottle (more than four years, and it’s up to the distiller).
  • No coloring or flavoring may be added to the whiskey, and it must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

“But Ryan, I thought bourbon was from Kentucky!”  Yes, you’d be correct in stating that most bourbons are distilled in Kentucky.  But that is certainly not a requirement for a whiskey to be labeled bourbon.

“Okay, but what about Jack Daniel’s?  Why is that a Tennessee whiskey and not a bourbon?”  Well first and foremost, kudos for not confusing Jack Daniel’s with bourbon (as most whiskey novices do).  Jack Daniel’s follows all of the steps outlined above, so why isn’t it a bourbon?  It’s because when they distill their whiskey, Jack Daniel’s puts the liquid through an extra mellowing filtration process.  The “sugar maple charcoal” adds a little more sweetness to the flavor.  As stated above, even if you add something extra to the process, your whiskey cannot be called a bourbon.

Despite the strict rules and regulations, bourbon can vary from brand to brand, or even bottle to bottle.  There’s plenty of variety to discover, and it’s comforting for me to know that the word “bourbon” on my bottle ensures a high-quality whiskey inside.



26 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. […] is precisely why I chose Benchmark, one of my personal favorites, and arguably the best value for bourbon drinkers around the […]

  2. […] my bottle from my father as a gift; one that I was hesitant to accept as I knew this was a special bourbon.  It’s been one of those rare bottles in my collection that I just can’t seem to finish all […]

  3. […] naturally I assumed that Japanese whisky would emulate bourbon, with their own unique twist of course.  I was pleasantly […]

  4. […] « What is Bourbon? […]

  5. […] Contrary to my initial thoughts, we began a conversation about whiskey; apparently he’s a big bourbon fan!  He started telling me about Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, a brand I knew nothing […]

  6. […] I haven’t reviewed in a little while.  If I just reviewed a Scotch, then I might review a bourbon.  If I already reviewed those, I might check out a rye […]

  7. […] mouth, the flavor shows up a little, but not all that much.  It’s similar to other basic bourbons, such as Benchmark, but definitely missing a lot of those […]

  8. […] those topics that most people think they know, but they are way off.  A few weeks back, I posted a little lesson about bourbon.  Like most things labeled “American”, its roots are European, and bourbon has […]

  9. […] distillers just plain get bourbon right.  They bring all the right components together to create a masterpiece.  Eagle Rare is one […]

  10. […] conniseour.  However, I must point out that he is not a big fan of Scotch – more of a bourbon man.  When we visited the booths of brands like Balvenie and Glenmorangie, I quickly noticed that […]

  11. […] George T. Stagg happens to be my favorite of the bunch, which is why I decided to start with it.  It’s also the highest proof at a staggering 141.4.  So that’s right around the range of Bacardi 151, which has about as much flavor as rubbing alcohol.  Stagg certainly packs a punch (so be careful with it!), but there’s plenty to taste in this complex bourbon. […]

  12. […] case you missed it, I reviewed George T. Stagg first and Eagle Rare 17 Year Old second.  Both are bourbons and very good bourbons at […]

  13. […] chicken thawing, but no real plans on how to prepare it.  My sister actually suggested preparing bourbon chicken, and who am I to turn her […]

  14. […] you’re used to the spiciness of a bourbon or the peaty taste of an Islay Scotch, most Canadian whiskies seem to get dull.  I used to enjoy […]

  15. […] being said, what is the best type of whiskey; American (including bourbon), Canadian, Irish, Scotch, or other international […]

  16. […] is the best type of whiskey?  By this I mean, in your opinion, do you prefer American (including bourbon), Canadian, Irish, Scotch, or another international variety of […]

  17. […] Anyway, a couple months ago, I posted the first link to this blog on my personal Facebook profile.  My Uncle Chris asked me about my thoughts on Knob Creek, and I quickly told him I wasn’t a fan.  Jokingly (at least I hope so!), he dismissed the rest of my authority on reviewing whiskey since I didn’t like his favorite bourbon. […]

  18. […] of whisky.  It’s much more identifiable as red wine.  Although matured for ten years in ex-bourbon casks, Lasanta spends two whole years in Oloroso sherry casks, as compared to several months like […]

  19. […] few weeks ago, I reviewed a whiskey called Rebel Reserve.  I went over my love for wheated bourbons, and my general displeasure with the offering from Rebel Reserve.  Cue some generic triumphant […]

  20. […] The nose on this rum immediately sets it apart.  Rather than the typical cane sugar aroma of most rums, Brugal 1888 has the nose of a well-aged, oaky bourbon. […]

  21. […] “Taken from the center-cut or middle sections of the famous Warehouse H, Blanton’s Original was once designated for ambassadors, dignitaries, and Colonel Blanton’s family and friends.  Today, everyone has access to the world’s first single barrel bourbon.” […]

  22. […] couple of years ago, I was attending a bourbon tasting at a micro-brewery in my area.  Samplings were available from Heaven Hill, Brown-Forman, […]

  23. […] whiskeys are interesting.  In my mind, they are like the little brother to bourbon.  I enjoy drinking bourbon much more, but rye is okay once in a while to change things […]

  24. […] room, where a giant copper still named Mary was heating up and starting the process of making bourbon.  Truman told me that they named the still Mary because that was the name of the real-life mother […]

  25. […] Today I’m reviewing William Larue Weller, an uncut/unfiltered bourbon named for a pioneer of bourbon distillation (replacing wheat for rye in the mash […]

  26. […] those of you that missed my brief introduction, bourbon is whiskey produced from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn.  The other 49 […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.