What Defines a Bourbon?

Let’s talk about bourbon, bourbon whiskey. That’s whiskey WITH an E, except if it’s Maker’s Mark or a couple of other brands in the US. That’s because the founding family, the Samuels, who still run the distillery to this day, wanted to pay homage to their Irish and Scottish heritage. You just learned one intriguing story about bourbon whiskey, one of many tales that help tell the strict rules of bourbon along with the amazing history that comes with it.

Bourbon by definition is a spirit that is distilled from a base of primarily corn. To be exact, at least 51% of the mash bill must be corn. Most bourbons also have barley, rye, and/or wheat in the mash. Rye whiskey in the US lives under similar laws, where 51% of the bill must be rye. Bourbon is one of the heaviest regulated spirits in the world. The same cannot be said for whiskies north of the border, but that’s another article.

** Tip: Some distilleries will release their mash bills, but some won’t. Find the bourbons you enjoy, and at least try and find out the ballpark the mash bill is in. For example, if you like Pappy Van Winkle, you like a wheated bourbon, one where the level of wheat is higher than the other grains. Four Roses, on the other hand, has a very high rye content, resulting in a spicier dram.

Contrary to popular belief, bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, not just the fine state of Kentucky. There are other corn-based whiskies made in America that can’t technically call themselves bourbon, so this causes some confusion. The majority of bourbons are actually made in Kentucky, which is more of a geographical issue. Water, is one of the main reasons that so many bourbons hail from Kentucky. High concentrations of limestone in the earth act as a filter, eliminating iron in the water, making it a perfect blank canvas to start the process of making a fine bourbon.

** Tip: Try bourbons from other states! There is fine bourbon now being made all over the US. States like Colorado, Indiana, Texas, and even Washington are getting into the business, and the juice is great.

Bourbon can be distilled no higher than 160 proof (80 % ABV). After distillation, the unaged spirit, commonly known as “white dog”, enters the barrel. Bourbon must be aged in new, charred, American oak barrels. The scorched wood helps give the whiskey its slightly sweet taste, its winter spice aromatics, and its silky mouthfeel. One of my favourite things about bourbon is the warehouses where the casks rest. Walking a dark, humid, three-story rickhouse in rural Kentucky, overlooking the blue grass hills should be on any whiskey fan’s bucket list. It’s hard to describe the nostalgia, the location, and of course the aromas!

** Tip: If you like a particular bourbon, find out what distillery it’s made at. Quite a few distilleries produce many different brands of bourbons. For example, Buffalo Trace, a must if you hit the Bourbon Trail, also produces Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, George T Stagg, and more. All these bourbons will be made on the same grounds, but just have different mash bills, different proofs, or different ages. There are hundreds of bourbon brands out there, and only a few dozen distilleries.

Once the whiskey has rested in American oak for a minimum of two years, the aged whiskey can be bottled. Unlike the majority of other spirits, nothing can be added to the final product except water. If no water is added, this means “Barrel Proof”. Water is added to bring the whiskey down to the brand’s desired ABV, which must be no lower than 40%.

** Tip: There is nothing wrong with adding a little water to your bourbon! Adding water may open up more aromatics and introduce other flavours to the palate. I highly recommend adding a few drops into any bourbon weighing in over 50%. On the contrary, adding ice will only chill down the flavours, muting the complexities of the spirit. Don’t get me started on whiskey rocks… don’t do it folks.

Don’t take bourbon too seriously. It’s meant to be enjoyed. While you should still respect its laws, learn its stories, try some new expressions, and if you can, go to Kentucky!

Fun Fact
Ever wondered why Jack Daniels is not a bourbon?
It’s filtered through maple charcoal before it’s aged, which is not allowed according to the regulations.