What is Bourbon? A Whiskey Lingo Guide
Recently, I visited my favorite liquor store to find a new Bourbon.
As I walked through the liquor store door, I instinctly made my way to the right to find the wall of Bourbons and Ryes.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
Four Roses has two mashbills:
- "Low Rye" (20% rye)
- "High Rye" (35% rye)
The Four Roses Single Barrel is a great example of a high rye whiskey.
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.
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.
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 is probably the most well known wheated bourbon. All of their products come from the same mashbill, so they will differ in other aspects.
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'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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Using this information for purchases
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.