Bourbon 101: Everything You Need to Know

 

Don’t let the fancy snifters and wall full of brand-name bottles intimidate you! This article will teach you the basics of what you need to know to order, purchase, and enjoy bourbon responsibly. Whether you are new to the world of libations, an old Scotch drinker, or a new convert, there is a bourbon to fit every taste and pace.

What is Bourbon?

Put simply, Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made primarily with corn. Now if you want to get fancy with it, there are five things that make Bourbon what it is according to The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. All bourbon must be:

  • Made with at least 51% corn grain. More can be used, but anything less is whiskey, not bourbon.
  • Aged for no less than two years.
  • Aged in a brand new oak cooperage (barrel or bucket).
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof.
  • Manufactured in the United States of America.

Even though bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States, products produced overseas are not allowed to claim the title of “bourbon whiskey”. Bourbon whisky gets its name from its historical association with the area called Old Bourbon in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It has been reported that more than 97% of bourbon whisky is made in or near the “Bourbon Capital of the World”, Bardstown, Kentucky.

Bourbon is an improvement over the whiskeys of the past because the aging, bottling, yeast, water source, and grain composition have evolved over the decades and centuries to produce a superior whiskey in taste, color, and smoothness.

You may notice that we use the tem bourbon and whisky interchangeably. That’s because all bourbons are whiskeys, but all whiskeys are not bourbons – remember, they must meet the above standards to hold the title bourbon.

Thanks to television shows like Mad Men, and a recent expansion of product lines from legendary distillers, bourbon drinks and cocktails are gaining popularity. Down here in Kentucky, the Bourbon Trail distillery and bar tours have created a whole new generation of whiskey connoisseurs and enthusiasts who are eager to convert from other mainstream liquors.

Speakeasy bars that whip up classic bourbon cocktails using a variety of bitters are also booming.

 

pdt-outside[1]
The nondescript entrance to Please Dont Tell in New York. Modern speakeasy bars are becoming some of the hottest destinations in major cities around the world.

How to Enjoy Bourbon

Bourbon is served straight, over ice, diluted with water or soda , and can even be used in cooking. Its OK to mix bourbon as you would other cocktails, but we recommend sticking with the classics like the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, and the famous Mint Julep.

Bitters, cherries, and even brown sugar can be used to spice up your cocktail, but do not, I repeat, do not destroy perfectly good whiskey with inferior substances. Doing so will ruin the bourbon, the experience, and is a great way to make your bartender hate you.

If you are interested in expanding your bourbon palate, the best way to experience a bourbon you may not have tasted before is to ask your bartender for a “flight”. Usually, flights are three half-pour snifters organized by distiller (grab a Jim Beam Small Batch Collection flight at Dish on Market), but many bars will allow you to choose your poisons. One of my favorite combinations to serve up in flight is the “Three B’s” – Bookers, Bulleit, and Blantons.

  • Bookers is a small batch bourbon developed by Jim Beam, has the highest alcohol content in the Small Batch Collection and is considered a cask strength bourbon – ranging from 125 to 131 proof. Originally, Bookers was reserved for friends of Jim Beams grandson, Booker Noe and wasn’t available to the public.
  • Bulleit is a Kentucky straight bourbon whisky and differs from the other two in its high rye content. Throwing Bulleit in the mix gives you some gentle exposure to rye bourbon.
  • Blantons is the world’s first single-barrel bourbon. Its 93 proof with a short finish, rich and sweet nose, and has a nice honey-vanilla palate.
Those are the basics! You now have just enough knowledge to make you dangerous. Of course, subscribers to Bourbon of the Day receive advanced training (and tons of bourbon insider information and swag)! We encourage you to stay in touch and join our mailing list for all our best material.

In the mean time, grab a glass, sit back, sip, and enjoy life!

Cheers,

Demitrius

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Comments (4)

Great read!

Please add my name for the subscription, Bourbon of the Day. Thank you!

Good day Demitrius. As an educator in a Canadian provincial liquor board I am constantly learning more for the sake of my students and coworkers. The whole bourbon aging requirements issue is throwing me for a loop. Might you be able to shed some light on it for me please? I am under the impression that there is NO 2 year rule for aging a bourbon in oak barrels (in fact I just read an article that says as long as the “white dog” spends at least 30 seconds in a box made of charred new oak, then it is a bourbon?) I get it that “straight” bourbons, by definition, must be aged for two years, but your statement above about “All bourbons must be…..” seems incorrect to me. Has anyone else approached you on this topic? On a similar note I couldn’t figure out how we were selling products that claimed to be bourbon, yet were flavoured with things like honey, and apples. I have since discovered that the whole “bourbons cannot have any colouring or flavouring added” ONLY applies to straight bourbons. I am currently doing the WSET4 section on spirits – hence my questions! 🙂 Thank you for any help you might be! Cheers, Andrew

Thanks for the great comment! I think we were remiss in cititng our sources (https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/27/5.22) and you are 100% correct in that a bourbon is not legally required to age for 2 years. In order to earn the title ‘Straight bourbon whiskey”, the 2 year long standard is in play. Also, in order for a bourbon to be what it is, no flavoring can be added to the whiskey before, during, or after bottling. That comes from the Taft Decision (http://www.bourbonoftheday.com/the-taft-decision/) that ultimately established our current food purity standards. The debate continues! Let me know if this helps at all!

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