One of the most common questions for those just getting into bourbon is, what is bourbon? Stop me if you have heard this cliche before, “all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” Well, no matter how many times people say it, it doesn’t become any less true.
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
First, a definition of whiskey; whiskey is a spirit distilled from a fermented grain mash. These grains include malted and unmalted barley, rye, corn, wheat and more.
So, bourbon is a type of whiskey; like Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey and Canadian Whisky, and just as each of these has rules they must follow to be labeled as such, Bourbon Whiskey has standards that must be met as well.
The Rules that Make Whiskey, Bourbon
The mash bill (grains that make up the distillers fermented mash) is the first major rule. Bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn. The rest made up of malted barley and either rye or wheat. So corn is the dominant grain, and dominant flavor, in bourbon.
When distilled, bourbon must not come off the still at higher than 160 proof and must not be poured into the barrel at higher than 125 proof. The whiskey is finally aged in new charred oak barrels.
Age is the next component in bourbon. To be labeled straight bourbon whiskey the spirit must be aged a minimum of two years, and to be labeled without an age statement it must be aged for a minimum of four years in the barrel.
Finally, bourbon cannot enter the bottle at less than 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume. These make up the standards for bourbon, but there are a few more nuances that are important. Oh, and bourbon must be made in America. That one is kind of important as well.
The Bourbon Mash Bill
While the bourbon mash bill must be 51 percent corn this is not always the case, in many cases, it has more. The amount of corn in bourbon ranges anywhere from 51 percent to 79 percent (anything at 80% or above is corn whiskey by definition).
Obviously, the amount of corn is going to dictate the amount of flavor grain in the whiskey. Rye or wheat are the two flavor grains, with rye being the most common. There are two variations of rye bourbons; low-rye and high-rye.
For example, Jim Beam makes two main bourbon mash bills (not counting their experimental releases). These consist of a low-rye mash bill that you will find in the Jim Beam labels, Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s. This mash bill is 77% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley.
Jim Beam’s Old Grand-Dad bourbons and their Basil Hayden Bourbon are both a high-rye mash bill. This mash bill is 63% corn, 27% rye, and 10% malted barley. If you want to taste the difference between a low-rye and high-rye mash bill, then I suggest grabbing a bottle of Jim Beam Bonded and a bottle of Old Grand-Dad Bonded. This way you can taste the difference with bourbons that are distilled at the same distillery, distilled with the same grains, aged around four years, and bottled at the same proof.
Wheat is the other typical flavor grain in bourbon. Famous wheated whiskeys including Maker’s Mark, W.L. Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, and Old Fitzgerald. Wheated bourbons are softer on the palate than their rye brethren. Wheated bourbon is unlike rye in that the wheat *rarely makes up more than 20% of the total mash bill. To taste the difference between rye and wheat bourbons my favorites to line up are Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond and Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond. Both of these products are made by the Heaven Hill Distillery and will help you taste the difference between rye and wheat bourbons.
*Redemption Whiskey, known for their Rye Whiskey and High-Rye Bourbon, have released a 45% rye wheated bourbon and I can tell you that it is delicious so we’ll see if this increases the percentage of wheat in bourbons on the shelf.
The Bourbon Maturation Process – What is Age, But a Number
The mash bill provides the base flavor for bourbon, but the aging process is where all of those big, bold flavors are born.
Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not need to be aged in new charred white oak barrels. While the bourbon does need to be aged in new charred oak barrels, the barrel does not need to be manufactured from white oak. Any oak variety is valid.
Beyond the barrels, the most crucial part of the maturation process is age. As stated above, straight bourbon has aged a minimum of two years and to be labeled without an age statement it must be aged for a minimum of four years… but these are minimums for a reason. Bourbon truly starts to open up once it has been aged around eight years with many believing that twelve years is nearly perfect depending on aging conditions and the mash bill that is used.
What about those incredibly expensive bourbons aged for far more than twelve years? Well, I have had a number of extra-aged pours that I have really enjoyed. The Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year is a fantastic bourbon, but for the money, the fifteen year is superior in my opinion. Now, the reasons are seemingly two-fold. First, the Pappy 15 is bottled at 107 proof while the Pappy 20 is bottled at a mere 90.4 proof, so the fifteen is given a serious edge from the start.
But the Pappy 20 also has more prominent oak on the palate and finish. Now, this may be something that you enjoy, and I myself don’t mind oak forward bourbons, which is why the twenty is still a great dram in my opinion, but the Pappy 23 simply goes too far. It has sat in oak so long that it dominates the entire experience. So yes, you can let the bourbon sit too long in oak, in my opinion.
The final part of the maturation process is the loss of liquid from the barrels due to evaporation (commonly called the angel’s share). As the bourbon sits the water in the liquid begins to evaporate, with some barrels losing as much as 10% of the liquid in the first year with another 3% being lost year over year. So if a barrel sits for 20 years there is significantly less bourbon to bottle. This is another reason extra-aged bourbon is so expensive. It isn’t that it is superior to bourbon aged 12 years, it’s that there is less bourbon to sell to make a profit from. This increases the cost dramatically.
Let’s Clear up a Few Bourbon Myths
Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. The law specifically states that it is a product of the United States, and while Kentucky certainly creates their fair share of bourbon (more than 80% of it) it is not a requirement. So that Kentucky Straight Bourbon on your shelf isn’t any more of a bourbon than your other Straight Bourbon… It just happens to be distilled in Kentucky. There is another myth that bourbon must come from the area within the original Bourbon County which is also incorrect.Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky.Click To Tweet
Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon, it is Tennessee Whiskey. While it starts with the same exact requirements from the mash bill to the distillate to being aged in new charred oak barrels, it adds an extra step, now called the Lincoln County Process due to some impressive marketing, which states that the distillate must be filtered through, or steeped in, charcoal before it is aged. And unlike bourbon, it is state specific with the whiskey only being made in, as you could guess, Tennessee.
Bourbon was not the first spirit to be aged in charred barrels. Brandy had been aged in charred barrels for centuries before bourbon was technically invented, but it is the spirit that has made charred barrels so popular. In fact, there is a saying that you can’t make good Scotch Whisky without good bourbon. This is because many Scotch distilleries take the used bourbon barrels to age their Scotch in.
You may have seen bottles labeled American Whiskey on the shelf these days. American Whiskey itself does not have any standards and has become a popular category for distilleries that wish to experiment with new mash bills and aging techniques. So the next time you’re at the liquor store, grab a bottle of American Whiskey and pour it alongside a bourbon to taste some of the different products being distilled in the states these days. It would be even better if the American Whiskey you grab has a mash bill that is known so you can have an idea of what is going on in your glass.