Welcome, fellow bourbon enthusiasts and curious readers alike! Let's dive headfirst into the golden sea of bourbon whiskey. This article aims to demystify the array of terms found on a typical bourbon bottle. Today, we're talking about the beloved American spirit – bourbon.
From Kentucky Straight to wheated bourbon and everything in between, let's embark on a journey through the spirited world of bourbon. In this deep dive, we'll explore the differences and characteristics that make each bourbon type stand out.
Bourbon, in essence, is a type of whiskey, but remember, not all whiskey is bourbon. So, what sets bourbon apart from other whiskeys?
Before we go any further, let's establish the minimum requirements for a whiskey to be considered a bourbon. Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, be aged in new charred oak barrels, distilled to no more than 160 proof, entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof. In addition to these criteria, to be classified as bourbon, the distillate must not contain any added flavoring or coloring.
Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Straight bourbon whiskey forms the core of the bourbon world. The term 'straight' refers to bourbon that's been aged for at least two years. If it's aged for less than four years, the label must specify the duration of aging. Bourbon that doesn't meet these age requirements can't be labeled as 'straight'.
Two of the most recognized straight bourbon whiskeys are Kentucky Straight and Tennessee whiskey. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, like Jim Beam White Label or Buffalo Trace, is a bourbon distilled and aged for at least two years in Kentucky. On the other hand, Tennessee Whiskey, such as Jack Daniel's, undergoes an additional filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process, where the whiskey is filtered through maple charcoal chips before being aged in new charred oak barrels.
Now, let's chat about wheated bourbon, a variety that swaps the traditional rye flavoring grain for wheat. This grain mixture results in a sweeter, smoother bourbon that's often more approachable for bourbon beginners. If you're interested in trying wheated bourbon, you might want to consider a bottle of Maker's Mark or Pappy Van Winkle.
Corn Bourbon and High Rye Bourbon
Corn bourbon, as the name implies, uses a high quantity of corn in the mash bill, which leads to a sweeter, softer taste. On the other end of the spectrum, we have high rye bourbon. If you enjoy a spicier, more robust flavor, you'll probably lean towards high rye bourbons, which feature a higher proportion of rye in the grain mixture. Bulleit Bourbon and Four Roses are well-known for their high rye content.
Single Barrel and Small Batch Bourbon
Two terms that you've likely come across on a bourbon list are "single barrel" and "small batch." Single barrel bourbon comes from one barrel, offering a unique flavor profile distinct to that particular barrel. Conversely, small batch bourbons blend select barrels to achieve a consistent flavor across multiple bottles. Both have their unique appeals – single barrel provides a unique tasting experience, while small batches offer a consistent flavor profile bottle after bottle.
Bonded Bourbon and Bottled in Bond
Bond bourbon, also known as Bottled in Bond, has its roots in the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. To qualify as bottled in bond, the bourbon must be the product of one distillation season, one distiller, and one distillery. It must be aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse and bottled at 100 proof.
Sour Mash Bourbon
Sour mash refers to a process rather than a type of bourbon. Most bourbons are sour mash, which means part of an old, previously fermented mash (which is sour) is used to start the fermentation of the new mash. This process, akin to the way sourdough bread is made, ensures consistency from batch to batch.
Bourbon Flavor Factors
The myriad of flavors in bourbon come from a variety of factors – the grain mixture, how long it's aged, the char level of the barrels, and even the climate where the barrels are stored. Each of these variables contributes to the depth and complexity of flavors in each sip of bourbon.
A World of Bourbon
The bourbon industry is booming, with new craft distilleries popping up across America and the world. Bourbon is a spirit with deep roots and rich traditions, but there's also plenty of innovation and experimentation happening in the bourbon world. There's never been a better time to explore the wonderful world of bourbon.
And remember, the best way to appreciate bourbon is to savor it – take note of its color, its aroma, and the flavors you detect with each sip. Most importantly, enjoy the experience, whether you're enjoying a bottle of affordable bourbon at home or savoring a rare pour at a bourbon bar. The world of bourbon is wide open, and there's plenty to explore.
Whether you're a bourbon newbie or a seasoned aficionado, there's always something new to learn about this complex spirit. With a wealth of styles, flavors, and histories, bourbon is a spirit that invites exploration. The next time you're standing in front of a bourbon shelf, think about what you've learned here. Maybe you'll decide to go with a high rye bourbon instead of your usual corn bourbon. Or perhaps you'll venture into the world of wheated bourbons. The world of bourbon is vast and varied, and there's something for everyone to enjoy. Cheers!