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Bourbon 101 - An Easy Guide to a Complicated Spirit

Fri, Dec 02, 22  |  news

Bourbon is one of the hottest topics these days…  from small batch to cask strength, these artisanal gems are flying off the shelves. But with the plethora of choices, different styles of bourbon’s can be a little difficult to navigate, hence, we’ve developed a brief crash course to keep it all straight!

So, here it is, Bourbon 101…begining with the simple quesiton: What is bourbon?

In the simplest terms, bourbon is made using a mash that contains at least 51% corn, and after distillation the whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak containers. After the barrels have been used once they can no longer be used for bourbon again, and are often sold to scotch producers in Scotland or Mexico for aging tequila.

More than 51% corn is used in Bourbon, but other common grains usually make up the remaining 49%. Typically, these grains include rye, wheat, and malted barley.

While bourbon can have anywhere from 51-100% corn in its mash,  corn whiskey must have more than 80%. Corn whiskey also does not have to be barrel aged at all, but if it is, it can only be aged in old charred oak, or new un-charred oak barrels.  Because of this, a corn whiskey and a bourbon can have the same mashbill, but because of aging methods, have completely different flavors. (Examples of corn bourbons include Hudson Baby Bourbon and Brimstone, which are 100% corn)

Bourbons tend to be sweet and more mellow in comparison to  Rye’s (which are a minimum of 51% rye) that  tend to be spicier. Whistle Pig, Michter’s Single Barrel Rye  and Redemption Rye  are examples of smokey and delicious rye’s.

Wheated bourbons include the renowned Pappy Van Winkle, selling for around $1,000!

What is the difference between single barrel, small batch, and straight bourbon?

Single barrel is very clear and precise in it’s definition. It means that all of the whiskey in the bottle came from a single barrel. Examples include Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve and Blanton’s.

Small batch whiskey or bourbons do not have any legal requirements to be deemed so. The terminology simply implies that the whiskey was made in smaller quantities, or was batched from a smaller number of barrels. For example, Maker’s Mark and Watershed Distillery  are considered small batch bourbons.

Most bourbon is labeled as “straight bourbon.” This means that the whiskey must be aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. “Kentucky straight bourbon,” on the other hand, can only be made in the Bluegrass State. In addition, any bourbon aged less than four years must include an age statement on its label. After four years, labeling is optional. Examples of straight bourbons include Basil Hayden’s, Eagle Rare and Woodford Reserve.

Cask strength bourbon, also known as barrel proof, is bourbon that is bottled with little to no water added.This results in a strong and high alcohol content spirit that is less palatable to casual consumers. Booker’s is a small batch cask strength bourbon.

What does aging do?

The original spirit produced from the distillation process is clear. This liquor has been referred to as “White Dog” and comes in grain and rye varieties.  It is currently hot on the market, and an ingredient in higher end cocktails.

 It is not until the bourbon is placed in new charred American oak barrels for aging, that  it gains color and flavor. The aging process also tames the whiskey, smoothing out its rougher edges and giving it a milder, more complex flavor.

The barrels are charred before use because the introduction of carbon into the process lends additional flavor to the whisky. The new oak imparts strong character.  Aging whiskey in oak gives it the flavors of vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, nuts, and fruits.

With the recent frigid temps, it’s time to warm up; and nothing does the job quite like a bourbon!  We carry many of the bourbons listed above in store. With such a breadth of tasty bourbons to choose from, perhaps you will be inspired to do your own tasting. If so, do let us know which wines YOU like best. You can comment right back here on our blog, on Facebook or in the store.  We are excited to hear your opinions!