10 Questions About Bourbon, Answered

Maddie Edgar
Maddie Edgar

Among life’s great simple pleasures, bourbon ranks with found money, the opening chords of “American Girl,” and the smell of asphalt after a warm summer rain. It’s America’s native spirit (designated so by Congress in 1964), and it pairs the glory of amber waves of grain with the majesty of purple mountains. And yet—yet!—many people partake of its bounty without knowing what makes bourbon bourbon, what separates it from other whiskies, and what the various terms on its label mean. Here, we answer those and a barrelful of other bourbon questions to help bring you up to speed on the nation’s glorious slow sipper.

I know there’s a legal definition, what is it again?

Yes, there is a legal definition of bourbon and it has seven main components. Ready?

1) It must be made from a mash bill consisting of at least 51% corn.
2) It has to be aged in charred new oak barrels.
3) It can be distilled to no more than 80% abv [160 proof].
4) It must enter cask at no more than 62.5 abv [125 proof].
5) It has to be bottled at at least 40% abv [80 proof].
6) It can contain no additives.
7) See below:

Does it have to come from Kentucky?

Contrary to popular belief, no. But it does have to be made in the USA, and close to 95% of bourbon comes from the Bluegrass State.

What does “straight bourbon” mean?

To qualify as “straight bourbon,” the spirit has to be aged a minimum of two years, with no added colorings or flavorings. Bourbon does not have to be aged for any particular length of time, but “straight bourbon” does.

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What are the rules on age statements?

Bourbon must carry an age statement if the liquid is aged more than two and less than four years. Otherwise no age statement is required. But any age statement refers to the youngest whiskey in the bottle. So your bourbon is at least as old as the statement says. And bear in mind, age statements are for marketing; older does not necessarily mean better, and bourbon will “age out” after a certain amount of time in the barrel, taking on more wood flavor than anyone wants.

What does “bottled in bond” mean?

The Bottled-in-Bond Act is a US federal law passed in 1897 to protect both the spirits industry and consumers from adulterated distilled beverages. It technically applies to all spirits, but most bottled-in-bond distillates are whiskey. The law states that the whiskey must be the product of one distillery and one distillation season, and it has to have been aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse under US government oversight. Finally, it has to be bottled at 50% abv (100 proof), and list its distillery on the label along with the the bottling plant, if this differs from the distillery. Not all bourbons are—or need to be—bottled-in-bond.

I’ve heard of ‘high-rye’ and ‘wheated’ bourbons. What are those?

As mentioned, the law states that bourbon’s mash bill must contain at least 51% corn. The remainder of the mash is usually composed of barley and rye, in varying percentages. A high-rye bourbon is simply one that cranks up the rye in the mash bill, resulting in a spicier, more peppery flavor profile than a traditional bourbon. Bulleit Bourbon and Old Grand Dad are examples of high-rye bourbons. Wheated bourbons are ones that drop rye altogether in favor of non-traditional wheat, imparting a softer flavor profile with boosted caramel and vanilla accents. Examples include the Van Winkle and Weller bourbons.

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Courtesy of Bulleit

How much rye is in Bulleit Bourbon?

For a whiskey to be legally defined as bourbon, it must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn. After that, distillers play with the percentages of other grains (usually barley and rye) to achieve the flavor balance they want. Bulleit Bourbon contains a whopping 28% rye in its recipe. The result is a spicy boldness complementing the vanilla and oak accents in its intriguing flavor profile.

Who invented bourbon?

A former Baptist minister from Kentucky often gets the credit, but more likely the truth is that a number of distillers landed on it at roughly the same time, deciding to age their corn whiskey (or Moonshine, White Lightning, or White Dog) in oak barrels to mellow its fire and enhance its flavor.

Where does the name come from?

This is another murky one: For decades, the story of bourbon’s name revolved around it being named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, in some form or fashion. But whiskey historian, writer, and Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer Michael Veach recently laid out a new theory: He believes it comes from Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, where Kentucky’s finest amber liquid was shipped in the 19th century by two French entrepreneurs from Louisville. New Orleans residents, they reasoned, would like whiskey that had been aged in charred barrels because it tastes more like French brandy or Cognac than other whiskies. As the entertainment center of New Orleans, Bourbon St received most of this whiskey, leading consumers to eventually start asking for “that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street.” This gradually got shortened to “that Bourbon whiskey,” according to Veach.

Maddie Edgar

What is small batch bourbon?

Like single barrel (more on that in a sec), “small batch” is a marketing term rather than a legally defined category. It simply means that the bourbon in the bottle came from a limited number of whiskey casks, in comparison to standard production methods. How limited? Well, it depends on the brand, but some small batch bourbons pull from as few as 10 barrels, while others draw from more than 100 and still get billed as small batch.

How about single barrel bourbon?

This one is even more straightforward than small batch: every bottle of single barrel bourbon comes from—you guessed it—one barrel of whiskey. A distiller will take a handful of similar barrels for a single-barrel release. Each bottle will come from just one barrel—there's no blending as there is with every other whiskey—but once they exhaust one cask, they’ll move on to other, similar ones for the same release. That's why there's some variance in the flavor profile in a single release, due to the differences between barrels.