A few days back, I visited my favorite liquor store to find a new Bourbon. As I walked through the door, I instinctly made my way to the right to find the wall of Bourbons and Ryes.

The wall of Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskey

My favorite store's selection. (Not pictured: the whole other selection behind me)

With a quick scan, I caught a few whiskeys that are new to the shelves. I also spotted Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades on the shelf, the bottle that I’ve wanted to buy but never have.

Finding all of my favorite brands sitting on the shelves is comforting to me. I enjoy the experience of being surrounded by those bottles, but it wasn’t always that way.

Just a few years ago, I only knew three or four different whiskeys, and I didn’t know what I was looking at when I perused the wall. $40 is a lot of money to throw at a whiskey when you’re not sure what it tastes like or if you’ll like it.

The bottles were covered in lingo that didn’t mean anything to me:

  • What is a wheated whiskey?
  • What is small batch?
  • What is Bonded? Is that the same as Bottled-In-Bond, whatever that means?

These terms only served to confuse me and muddle my choices.

Today, I understand these terms: I know what “wheated” will mean in terms of the whiskey’s palate, I know that “small batch” is a mostly bullshit term, and I know that “Bonded” or “Bottled-In-Bond” is a good thing, especially if you’re looking for a good but cheap whiskey.

I learned these things over time, and I wrote this guide to help others cut through the confusion and understand what they’re buying.

What is Bourbon: The Short Story

Bourbon is the distinctive American whiskey. Similar to how Scotch can only be made in Scotland, bourbon can only be made in the United States. And it can be made anywhere in the United States, not just Kentucky.

Map of the United States of America

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States.

But, in order to call itself bourbon, it must be made primarily from corn and aged in new oak barrels/containers that have been charred/burned on the inside.

Barrels at Old Forester Distiller

Barrels being made and charred at the Old Forester Distillery.

The barrel does a lot to make bourbon what it is. New barrels provide much of the flavor to the whiskey, giving it a richer character. The burning of the inside of the barrels both filters out bad elements through the char and introduces notes like caramel through caramelizing the sugars of the wood.

These aspects help to give bourbon its whiskey identity.

What does Bourbon Taste Like?


Notes present in the 20 most common Bourbons

The graph above is a composition of the top 5 tasting note groups from the 20 most common bourbons. As you can see, Bourbon is generally sweet, often spicy due to adding rye into the grains and aging in new barrels. The barrel also gives bourbon its woody notes as well as vanilla and caramel.

Is Bourbon smokey?

Bourbon is very rarely smokey and never really peaty. I call this out because I've had many conversations with people that think all whiskey is smoky. In reality, that's more of a note common to Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whisky.


That’s the short story to Bourbon: USA, 51+% Corn, New Barrels.

But there’s more nuance to Bourbon, and that’s why we have walls of it in our liquor stores. The nuances are the longer story.

Bourbon and its Nuances: The Long Story

Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that the recognition of Bourbon whiskey as a distinctive product of the United States [be upheld]. . .

US Congress Resolution to Designate Bourbon Whiskey, May 4, 1964

I think in order to understand what Bourbon is and where it fits into the whiskey world, we need to understand what whiskey is itself.

The bar wall of Whiskey

Look at all of those Scotch, Irish, Japanese, Bourbon, and Rye whiskeys. Oh, and don't forget "Tennessee" whiskeys (they're sensitive about that).

What is whiskey, really?

Here’s a rough description of whiskey. It is an alcohol that is:

  • Fermented and distilled from grains. This can be barley, corn, rye, wheat, quinoa, you name the grain.
  • Aged in a container, like a barrel. These are typically oak containers, and required to be oak in the US.
  • Bottled no lower than 40% ABV or 80 proof

There are some discrepancies for each of those statements, but that is because there is no definitive description of whiskey worldwide.

Still, it’s safe enough to say that when you go to the liquor store, 99.99% of the whiskeys that you see on the shelf will fit those criteria.

What is Bourbon, really?

Bourbon follows that same description and adds some additional stipulations.

  • Fermented and distilled from grains, and at least 51% of the grain must be corn 🌽. The rest can be barley, more corn, rye, wheat, you name the grain.
  • It contains no additives like caramel coloring. In the Scotch world, caramel coloring is more commonplace.
  • Distilled no higher than 80% ABV or 160 proof
  • Stored at no higher than 62.5% ABV or 125 proof. This is called the Entry Proof, or the proof at which the distillate enters the barrel.
  • Aged in a charred new oak container. This is typically a barrel, but it doesn’t specify that a barrel has to be used, nor does it specify the size of the container.
  • Bottled no lower than 40% ABV or 80 proof

Given those specifications, there’s still a lot of room to play around, and this is how bourbons distinguish themselves.

Important Factors of Making Bourbon

There are several factors in the making of bourbong that can affect its flavor. I have outlined some of the factors useful to putting the vast wall of bourbon into more distinct subcategories.

Grains - The Mash Bill

Bourbon comes from the distillation of a beer-like product made solely from grains, water, and yeast.

Corn from Buffalo Trace

That's a handful of great bourbon potential.

Before even making the beer, a distiller has to decide which grains they will use and the amount of each grain that will go in their product. This is called the Mash Bill. The grains used in the mash bill can make a big difference in how the whiskey will taste.

Common grains used in bourbon along with corn include:

  • Rye - The addition of rye grain will make the Bourbon a little more spicy. By spicy, I mean black pepper or allspice or even minty, not hot sauce spicy.

    The amount of rye included in the whiskey will vary greatly, from a low rye whiskey like Jim Beam that purportedly uses 13% rye to a high rye whiskey like Four Roses that uses 35% rye.

    To see the flavors that rye can provide, try tasting a rye whiskey (made with at least 51% rye) like Sazerac or Wild Turkey Rye next to a bourbon.

  • Wheat - Wheat is typically used as an alternative to rye. It’s said that wheat doesn’t add much more to the flavor, so it allows the corn and barrel flavors to come out more. I have witnessed this and I have found wheated Bourbons to be more calm, fruity, and woody.

  • Barley - Barley plays a role in most whiskeys. In a Single Malt Scotch, the Mashbill is 100% barley. Barley is in almost all Bourbons, but it typically only makes up between 5-12% of the mashbill.

    Barley is often used for its enzymes. The yeast that creates alcohol during fermentation feeds on sugars, not starches. Since the grains are mostly starches, they need to be turned into sugar, and that’s the job of enzymes. Certain varieties of barley can be high in enzyme, and these varieties are often used in Bourbon.

    But, don’t fully discount barley. It can provide malty flavors and chocolate in your Bourbon, especially when used in higher amounts.

Using this information for purchases

You may see “High Rye” or “Wheated” explicitly on the label of Bourbon bottle, but not all of the bottles call it out. Still, you can find this info online if you’re looking for a specific type.

There’s no specification on what “High Rye” means, but taking from Bernie Lubbers over at Heaven Hill Distilleries, he considers 18%+ to be “High Rye”.

Common High Rye Bourbons
Card image cap
Four Roses
Single Barrel

Four Roses has two mashbills:

  • "Low Rye" (20% rye)
  • "High Rye" (35% rye)
Given those percentages, all of the bourbon coming out of Four Roses can be considered "high rye".

The Four Roses Single Barrel is a great example of a high rye whiskey.

Old Grand Dad Bonded
Old Grand Dad Bonded

I couldn't find the official mash bill, but Old Grand Dad is pretty well known to be high rye. According to Blake of Bourbonr, it's around 27% rye.

Also, don't be fooled by its plastic bottle cap or $20-ish price tag. OGD Bonded (Old Grand Dad) is one of the best bourbons in the $20-40 range. It's worth giving a try.

Basil Hayden's
Basil Hayden's

Both Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden's come from Jim Beam and the same mash bill. What that means is when it comes out of the still, OGD and Basil Hayden's are one and the same. But, that doesn't mean what's in each bottle is the same; a lot happens to a whiskey after distillation.

Still, if Blake is right on the OGD mash bill, then this too is around 27%. It even touts itself as a high-rye on its website.

Old Forester
Old Forester

Old Forester barely makes it to this list because it hits Bernie's minimum 18% rye requirement.

Still, I'm happy to put Old Forester on this list because they make some great whiskeys.

Common Wheated Bourbons

Wheated Bourbons are certainly in the minority when it comes to the Bourbon landscape, but there’s some you’ve certainly heard of and others that are widely sought after.

Maker's Mark
Maker's Mark

Maker's Mark is probably the most well known wheated bourbon. All of their products come from the same mashbill, so they will differ in other aspects.

Maker's is 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley.

W.L. Weller
W.L. Weller

W.L. Weller is a highly sought after Buffalo Trace Distillery product.

Weller is supposedly 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley.

Van Winkle
Van Winkle

Van Winkle's are some of the most sought after Bourbons in the world.

Here's the interesting thing: they share the same distillery and mash bill as Weller mentioned above.

Don't let that undervalue the Van Winkle's for you. Instead let that show the significance of the steps after distillation: maturation, picking, blending, and proofing.

Those steps can make the difference between a $23 bourbon and one that can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to get your hands on.

Larceny
Larceny

Larceny is one of the least known wheated bourbons, but it's one worth knowing.

Larceny comes from Heaven Hill Distillery, the same distillery as Elijah Craig and Evan Williams.

For its price ($20 range), I have found it to be the wheated bourbon I enjoy the most.

Fermentation

Fermentation Tank at New Riff

Fermentation tanks bubbling at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, where the yeast turns sugars from the mash into alcohol and carbon dioxide (the bubbles).

The fermentation process is where the alcohol magic begins. It’s where the enzymes from malted grains break down the starches in the grains into sugars, and it’s where yeast goes to lunch turning the sugars into alcohol and other by-products. The by-products lead to some of the flavors and smells that you love in whiskey.

The process starts by cooking the grains of the mash in water, and when they have turned into a mush, adding yeast. The mash will ferment from a couple of days to almost a week depending on the distillery’s profile for their whiskey.

Here’s a video of Eddie Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey, discussing their fermentation process.

Yeast

It is said that if you change the yeast strain but keep everything else the same, you’ll come out with a slightly different tasting whiskey. Many distilleries use a proprietary yeast (and brag about it).

Four Roses uses 5 different yeast strains, and 5 strains x their 2 mashbills leads to their 10 different recipes.

Sour Mashing

Sour mashing is when some of the leftovers from the distillation process are added into a new fermentation mash. Doing so helps improve the fermentation process.

Sour mashing is a very common process in the bourbon world, so don’t be fooled into thinking some bourbon is special just because it says “sour mash” on the bottle.

An exception to that rule is when whiskeys are labelled “Sour Mash Whiskey”. Being a “Sour Mash Whiskey” very likely means that the whiskey does not meet all of the specification to be bourbon. This is the case with Michter’s Sour Mash Whiskey, where its mash bill does not meet the Bourbon specification.

Using this information for purchases

There aren’t a whole lot of whiskeys that distinguish themselves with regards to yeast. There are a lot of whiskeys that brag about sour mashing. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s something more than it is.

Distillation

A column still at Old Forester

A column, or continuous still, proudly displayed in the Old Forester Distillery.

After fermentation is complete, the mash beer may contain somewhere between 8% to 12% alcohol.

In order to bring up the alcohol content in the product, it must be distilled. Distilling the mash extracts out the good parts: the alcohol and along with it, some flavors and fragrances.

Distillation works because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. It’s an important process, and distillation has many factors that play into it. Right now, we’ll focus on the still type.

The Type of Still

There are two common types of stills used to make whiskey: the pot still and the column still.

Pot Stills

Pot stills are commonly used for Scotch and Irish whiskey, and they look like a large bulb on the bottom with a swan neck protruding from the top. Pot stills often require distillation to happen in batches. Once a batch is complete, the mash has to be removed from the still before starting another batch.

Four Roses doubler shaped similar to a Pot Still

Okay, this technically isn't a pot still. It's a doubler that serves to further distill whiskey off of the column still at Four Roses. But, this doubler is very similar to the shape of pot stills.

Pot distillation requires distilling multiple times, often two to three times, to get the alcohol percentage to the right amount. If you’ve heard or seen the term “triple distilled”, that is what it’s referring to.

Column (or Continuous) Stills

Column stills are used by the majority of distillers producing Bourbon. Column stills are a large column that is able to continuously distill whiskey, so they don’t require having the previous mash removed before doing another distillation run. Instead, spent mash is removed as distillation happens.

Part of the column still at Wild Turkey
Column stills can be very big, some being several stories high. For instance, the still partially photographed here at Wild Turkey is 52 feet tall with a 5 foot diameter.

The column still works by using water vapor to heat up the mash. The alcohol takes heat from the water vapor and itself vaporises, while the water cools and stays behind. The mash enters the column near the middle, pushing alcohol vapors up the column, and removing the spent mash near the bottom.

New Riff Building with Still behind glass

The column still at New Riff is a sight to see and visible from outside of the building, in a glass encasing.
Using this information for purchases
Willett Pot Still Reserve
Willett's Pot Still Reserve bottle is in the shape of a pot still.

Since pot still distillation is not a common method to making Bourbon, there are a few whiskeys that will call it out when they use a pot still for distillation.

An example is Willett’s Pot Still Reserve, that as seen above, wanted to call it out so bad, they shaped their bottle after a pot still. Another one that I’ve seen is Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon.

Maturation and Beyond: To be continued

Maturation is the process from when the new make, or the product that comes off of the still, goes into the barrel until it comes out of the barrel.

The maturation process is incredibly important to everything about the whiskey: its color, taste, smell, texture, and even its proof.

Buffalo Trace and its White Dog
If you want to see the difference between new make and bourbon after maturation, find a bottle of Buffalo Trace's White Dog and compare it to Buffalo Trace Bourbon, which is the new make aged 6-8 years and proofed down to 80 proof.
The comparision shows what that time in the barrel does to a bourbon.

Blending & Proofing, or the lack thereof are the steps that happen after the whiskey is matured, and they too play an important role in the products on our shelves.

Blending is the combining of many barrels into a vat before bottling.

Proofing is bringing the whiskey to a consistent proof, like 80 proof, before bottling.

I will expand on these stages of whiskey making in a part 2 blog within the next few weeks, so keep a look out.


Until then, I hope you have more comfort in what you’re buying. But, if you still need some recommendations, here are mine.

My Bourbon Recommendations

Here are 4 of my favorite bourbons. If you buy any of the bottles and love my recommendations, please reach out to me.

If you end up not liking them, reach out as well and I’ll gladly take the bottles of your hands.

Wild Turkey 101
Wild Turkey 101
Best Dollar-for-Dollar Bourbon, Low Price

I initially doubted Wild Turkey 101. "Everyone knows it, it's cheap, it can't be good."

Then I started to do blind pairings: try two whiskeys next to each other w/out knowing what they are. 101 not only held its ground; it blew other $20-50 whiskeys out of the water.

Whiskey biases can hold you back. Blind tastings are their antidote.

Booker's Bourbon
Booker's
Best Barrel Proof Bourbon

I never let my whiskey shelf go without a bottle of Booker's. For a proof up in the 120's, it's often remarkably delicate and flavorful.

Booker's comes out in batches: 4 batches per year. Each one will be slightly different, though I have found them all to be reliably good.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Best Dollar-for-Dollar Bourbon, Mid Price

I know, two Wild Turkey products out of four recommendations is a little much.

But, I promise you: if you're looking for a $40 range whiskey that tastes like a $80+ whiskey, Wild Turkey Rare Breed is your best bet.

And don't just take it from me: Fred Minnick, the top bourbon critic, chose it in a blind tasting next to whiskeys that sell for hundreds of dollars.

Noah's Mill Bourbon
Noah's Mill
Best Spicy Bourbon

Noah's Mill is another whiskey I always want to have on my shelf (though right now I'm falling short).

It's the first bourbon where cinnamon popped right out on the nose. It's not Red Hot cinnamon; it's Cinnabon cinnamon along with the sweetness of caramel and tobacco.

The palate is flavorful yet smooth, and I always find myself savoring the glass I'm drinking.