Beginner’s Guide to Buying Bourbon

Bourbon. A type of American whiskey that has a strong connection to the South, especially Kentucky where its origins can be traced back. Over the past ten years, bourbon has become increasingly popular, with people even going as far to “flip” rare bottles for an extreme profit. A delicious and complex flavored spirit, it can be served neat, over ice, cut with water, or mixed into cocktails.

For many, bourbon is considered America’s “native spirit” the tradition and legacy is deep-rooted in our nation’s history. In order to legally be called bourbon, the mashbill (the bourbon’s specific recipe) must be a grain mixture made with at least 51% corn, distilled domestically in the U.S. to no more than 160 proof, put in the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof, then bottled at no less than 80 proof. The whiskey must also be aged in new, charred-oak wood barrels. These are the primary (there are a few more) federal standards, put in place by Congress in 1964, in order to call a whiskey a bourbon. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, Americans take their bourbon very seriously.


When it comes to bourbon there are six primary categories that bourbon aficionados use to classify this beloved spirit. Get to know these and you’ll have a good foundation for understanding what to look for in terms of flavor and also how to impress your friends at the next cocktail party.

  • Single Barrel
  • Cask Strength
  • Wheated
  • High Rye
  • High Corn
  • Small Batch


Single Barrel:

These bottles of bourbon come from one barrel and are not blended with any others. Flavors will be different from barrel to barrel within the same brand of single-barrel bourbon since the amount of pieces of wood, char in the barrel, and conditions a barrel was aged will change. Blanton’s was the first single-barrel bourbon to emerge onto the market in the 1980’s. As daily drinker at the mid-level price point we are a huge fan of Eagle Rare.


Cask Strength:

These bourbons can pack a punch and are known for being some of the most flavorful in the whiskey world. Before going into the barrel bourbons are mixed with water to reduce the proof below the 125 proof regulation. During the aging process the water will evaporate so when the barrel is emptied the spirit can be higher proof than when it entered. Before bottling most bourbons are cut again with water to get to the distiller’s desired proof. Not these guys. These are full-flavor, intense, put-hair-on-your-chest type bourbons. Cask strength or barrel proof bourbon drinkers will sometimes cut their pours with a few drops of water to get it to their own flavor preference. Since these come straight from the barrel there tends to be a spice-forward palette with notes of the burn and char from the barrel. One of the most popular cask strength bottles we know and love is George T. Stagg.



Otherwise known as “wheaters” these are a type of bourbon where the distillers use wheat as the secondary ingredient in the mashbill. This yields a less spicy, less sour, and less floral taste to the end product. These bourbons are typically known for being nutty and soft on the palette. The holy grail of bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, is the most famous wheated bourbon. (We know you’ve heard of it…)


High Rye:

The core ingredients of any bourbon is corn, barley, and rye. Traditional recipes tend to have about 10% rye but a few bourbons go beyond this making for a more bold and almost spicy flavor. A few examples of high rye bottles you may have heard of: Bulleit, Four Roses Single Barrel, Redemption High Rye Bourbon.


High Corn:

Bourbon must be at least 51% corn according to regulations however a few go beyond that. These bourbons are known for their sweet flavor. These bourbons are not however, to be confused with a different and distinct separate category of whiskey called corn whiskey. We are a fan of the Hudson Baby Bourbon bottle hailing from New York state’s Tuthilltown Spirits and made with 100% New York corn.


Small Batch:

An increasingly familiar term in the world of bourbon, there is no real definition of what a “small-batch” bourbon actually is. It typically refers to a bourbon produced by mixing the contents of a small number of select barrels. Compared a distillers’ flagship bottle which could contain a bourbon mixture from hundreds or thousands of barrels, this gives a distiller more freedom to experiment. Small batch bourbons are produced in less quantity and the distiller will oftentimes note the batch or barrel number on the bottle. A couple of our small batch recommendations are Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden.


If you want to experiment with mixing bourbon into some creative cocktails we’ve got three recipes below that might tempt your taste buds…


Bourbon Old-Fashioned

Bad Blood Cocktail | Summer Hits Remixed By Drizly

A true classic. Effort: Easy

Serves 1


2 oz bourbon

1 white sugar cube

3 dashes bitters

2 tsp Soda Water

Orange wheel

Luxardo cherries

Directions: In an old fashioned glass put sugar, bitters and soda water. Muddle thoroughly blending the sugar. Ice one large ice cube. Pour in bourbon and garnish with orange and cherries.


Fall Flavors Whiskey Sour

Fresh made Cocktail (Whiskey Sour) on dark wooden background

A little twist on the crowd-favorite cocktail.  Effort: Medium


1 1/2 oz bourbon

½  oz cinnamon whiskey

1 egg white

1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice

¾ oz maple syrup

2 dashes of bitters

Directions:  In a shaker combine ice, egg white, bourbon, and cinnamon whiskey in a shaker and shake vigorously for 30 seconds until egg white is frothy. Add lemon juice, maple syrup and bitters and shake again for 5-10 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Serve immediately.

(This drink can also be made without the egg white.)



The Capone 


*Adapted from the Bufala Negra cocktail. Al Capone imported whiskey and balsamic vinegar, he asked his people make him a drink that included both. We went an extra step and included some garden fresh tomatoes. A sweet reminder of the home country….

Effort: Medium


1 oz simple syrup

½  oz balsamic vinegar

3-4 large basil leaves (fresh)

2 oz bourbon whiskey

Ginger beer (We used Reed’s Ginger Beer)

4-5 garden cherry tomatoes

Directions:  Muddle simple syrup, balsamic, 2 basil leaves (diced), 3 cherry tomatoes (chopped) in shaker base. Add ice and bourbon, shake vigorously for 10 seconds, strain into low ball glass. Fill glass with fresh ice. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with large basil leave and one slice tomato.


Not a Bourbon drinker? Head over to our recipes page for over 100 additional cocktail concoctions.

Category: HistoryLiquor

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