Beginner's guide: bourbon 101
November 04, 2020
The facts, buying guide, tasting notes and more
Buying and ordering the right kind of whiskey or bourbon can be hard. You'll find a lot of factoids out there like, “Whiskey is a distilled liquor made from fermented grain mash." What is distillation? What does fermentation mean? What even is a grain mash and why is it a requirement?
But don't sweat it, you've come to the right place to get answers in digestible terms. Here, we'll break down the difference between whiskey and bourbon, answer some of the most common questions about bourbon, and share everything you need to know about the categories of bourbon and how to taste and buy it. So if you're a whiskey or bourbon neophyte trying to learn a thing or two, or are simply trying to up your bourbon game, join us.
To start, there's a few words that we need to explain.
Mash is a fancy way to say a recipe of corn, wheat or rye and malted barley that are combined with heat and water to make a mixture.
Fermentation is when the sugars from the mash are broken down by yeast and create carbon dioxide and alcohol. This takes a few days. After something is fermented, it gets distilled.
Distillation is to separate the alcohol from the water by boiling out the alcohol. Because water has a higher boiling point than alcohol, the mixture created from the fermentation process can be heated to extract alcohol. Boom. Science.
What's the difference between whiskey and bourbon?
The definition of Whiskey (or whisky in Scotland and Canada) is “a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash, then aged in wood barrels." What that means is that this “mash" is created, fermented to create alcohol and then distilled to separate the alcohol and water and make the beginnings of whiskey.
After all that, it's put into wood barrels to age until it's matured, or aged. Some whiskeys are “finished" in a second barrel that may have previously held wine or rum, which changes up the flavor. Often, whiskeys are “chilled" before bottling. Then voila, we have whiskey. There are a bunch of whiskeys, but the most popular American whiskey is bourbon.
At this point, you're probably saying to yourself, “What do you mean American whiskey is bourbon?" We're getting there.
*heads tilt, confusion sets in, havoc ensues* Hear us out. Remember geometry class? Your teacher told you that a square is always a rhombus, but a rhombus isn't always a square. Think that, but sub booze for parallelograms. Bourbon is always whiskey. Whiskey is not always bourbon. In order to be considered one of the elite members of the bourbon club, whiskey needs to pass a few tests. First, it must be produced in America and made from at least 51% corn mashbill (again, for all you non-distillers out there, corn mash bill is a fancy way to say a mix of corn, rye or wheat and malted barley). The whiskey must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and put into the barrels at no more than 125 proof. The last requirement is that it must be aged in a new charred-oak barrel. Why? Legal stuff.
Bourbon questions & answers
Aren't there other types of American whiskeys?
Yup. Most of them are made from the same three base ingredients of bourbon (corn, wheat, rye), but in different proportions. From a flavor profile standpoint, you can try rye whiskey if you (or your whiskey-loving loved one) likes the spice, while wheat whiskeys are known to be a touch softer, and corn whiskey is often marketed to be a little more down home as White Lightning.
I'm still confused. Is Jack Daniels bourbon?
Jack (as he's known to his friends) is actually a Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, which is similar enough to anyone but a whiskey nerd that they've become pretty much interchangeable.
A brief history of bourbon
Bourbon has a strong connection to the South, especially Kentucky (which is probably why it pairs so well with fried chicken). Over the past ten years, bourbon has become increasingly popular, with people even going as far to “flip" rare bottles for profit. Bourbon is a delicious and complex flavored spirit, and is flexible enough to be served in a whiskey glass neat, over ice, cut with water or mixed into cocktails. Versatility at its finest.
For many, bourbon is considered America's “native spirit." Remember all that experience whiskey had to have on its resume to get promoted to bourbon? Those standards were put in place by Congress in 1964. And believe it or not, there are a few more standards that were put in place then, too. To say bourbon is taken seriously is an understatement. When it comes to bourbon there are six primary categories. Get to know these, and you'll be the whiskey connoisseur of the ages.
What are the categories of bourbon?
There's six: single barrel, cask strength, wheated, high rye, high corn and small batch.
There's six: single barrel, cask strength, wheated, high rye, high corn and small batch.
1. Single Barrel
Plain and simple. 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 in which a barrel was aged will change. Blanton's was the first single-barrel bourbon to emerge onto the market in the 1980's. We're also big fans of the mid-level priced whiskey of Eagle Rare, if you were wondering.Shop Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon
2. Cask strength
These are big time bourbons that not only pack a punch, but are known for being some of the most flavorful in the world. Before bottling, most bourbons are cut with water again to get to the distiller's desired proof. Not these guys. These are 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.Shop George T Stagg Bourbon
Otherwise known as “wheaters", these are a type of bourbon where the distillers use wheat as the secondary ingredient in the mash bill. This makes a less spicy, less sour and less floral taste. These bourbons are typically known for being nutty and soft on the palette (phrasing). The holy grail of bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, is the most famous wheated bourbon.Shop Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve
4. High rye
As we now know, the core ingredients of any bourbon are corn, barley and rye. Traditional recipes tend to have about 10% rye but a few bourbons go for a bolder, spicier flavor by going beyond that 10%. A few examples of high rye bottles you may have heard of: Bulleit, Four Roses Single Barrel and Redemption High Rye Bourbon.
5. High corn
So to be a Bourbon, the candidate in question must be at least 51% corn according to regulations. But a few overachievers go beyond that. These bourbons are known for their sweet flavor. Despite the sweet flavor, these bourbons are not to be confused with corn whiskey, which is a different and distinct separate category of 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.Shop Hudson Baby Bourbon
6. Small batch
Technically there's no real definition of what a “small-batch" bourbon actually is. But, it's an increasingly familiar term in the world of bourbon. Basically, it's a bourbon produced by mixing up a small number of select barrels. Compared to a distillers' flagship bottle which could contain a bourbon mixture from hundreds or thousands of barrels, this gives a distiller more freedom to experiment. In an elite club of their own, 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 Basil Haydens Kentucky Bourbon.
How do you taste bourbon?
We've got the background. You're practically bourbon historians. We've covered the categories. Now's the moment we've been waiting for: actually drinking it. There are 4 categories to consider when tasting bourbon: appearance, aroma, taste and finish.
How does it look? The spirit gets its color from maturing in barrels. So, generally speaking, the darker it is, the longer it's been aged. You can determine a lot about how your bourbon is going to smell and taste from it's appearance.
Similar to wine, swirling your bourbon and sniffing it tells you a lot about the libation. Spoiler alert: it's going to smell like alcohol. A trick that helps break up the alcohol smell from the bourbon smell is to open your mouth, put your nose to the glass and breathe in through your mouth. Do this a few times to get the smell of the bourbon. This is a skill that comes with time, so if you're stuck trying to figure out if that smell is more vanilla or almond or simply cannot get past the smell of alcohol, no worries.
We did it. We're finally here. We're actually TASTING the bourbon. Take a small sip and swirl it in your mouth so that you cover each of your tastebuds. Now think about the taste, beyond the alcohol. Go with your gut on this. Is it vanilla-y? Very possible. Maybe it was kind of spicy? Interesting. There are 16 common flavors of bourbon, so the options are vast.
How does it leave your mouth after? Is there an aftertaste? Is it smooth or harsh? Whatever you've got, note it.