Arguably the most famous of American whiskies, especially abroad, bourbon is a unique beverage with its own criteria.
In this introductory guide, you will learn everything you need to know about bourbon whiskey:
- What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
- Difference Between Bourbon Vs Whiskey
- What Does Bourbon Taste Like?
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Bourbon Health Benefits
Use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all. You’ll find our other bourbon whiskey guides in the menu below.
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What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
According to US regulations outlined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Federal Standard of Identity for Distilled Spirits, bourbon whiskey must be produced in the USA.
Bourbon whiskey may feature other types of grain as long as at least 51% of the mash consists of corn. Like all American whiskey, it must be distilled to a maximum of 80% ABV, aged in new charred oak barrels at no more than 62.5% ABV, and then bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
When distilled to a higher proof, a spirit loses its flavour compounds, but it results in more liquor once it has been diluted. The aforementioned thresholds are set in order to preserve the whiskey’s quality.
Most foreign authorities respect the USA’s definition of bourbon. For instance, bourbon sold in Canada must conform to the entirety of the USA’s requirements. Meanwhile, the European Union’s requirements are a little looser but the whiskey must at least be produced in the USA.
However, given the export costs for distributors and that the EU requires whisk(e)y to have been aged for at least three years, it’s unlikely that what’s sold there wouldn’t also conform to American standards.
Conversely, there is no strict minimum age for standard bourbon in the USA. It’s entirely possible for bourbon to be bottled after only a few months.
Finally, you may have heard of different types like “straight”, “bottled-in-bond”, or “blended”. We explore these further in the types of bourbon guide.
Difference Between Bourbon Vs Whiskey
While all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. Indeed, by now you have probably gathered that bourbon is a type of whiskey. Yet, what makes it so distinctive that it has its own name?
Aside from Tennessee whiskey, which is technically identical to bourbon apart from where it’s made, it’s also the only one to not be named after its primary ingredient.
Like all whiskey, though, bourbon is made by distilling what is called a mash bill. A mash bill is a mixture of grain that is fermented into what is essentially beer before being distilled. When making American whiskey, these varieties of grain typically consist of rye, corn, and wheat.
As mentioned above, bourbon whiskey’s mash must consist of at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% can be any type of grain and producers have their own recipes to produce distinctive flavours.
Interestingly, bourbon and what is called “corn whiskey” aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. Although bourbon needs at least 51% corn in its mash, corn whiskey actually requires 80%! Additionally, corn whiskey may be aged in barrels that are uncharred or have already been used.
What Does Bourbon Taste Like?
Thanks to its high corn content, bourbon usually has a distinctively sweet flavour profile compared to other types of American whiskey. Furthermore, it must usually undergo a similar ageing process to the others, which requires charred new oak barrels.
New oak will have a greater influence on the distillate than used casks, which are generally preferred for making Scotch whisky.
Charring the wood beforehand opens up its grain and allows a great extraction of flavour. It also induces chemical reactions that produce specific flavours such as caramel. Similarly, uncharred oak produces less lignin, which creates a distinctive vanilla flavour.
Consequently, prolonged ageing in these barrels will allow the oak to impart more flavours of caramel and vanilla. Therefore, straight or bottled-in-bond bourbons will usually reveal such flavours.
Meanwhile, young bourbon may offer a more cereal-forward experience with overt notes of the different grain used in the mash. Indeed, the other mash bill components will influence the bourbon’s resulting flavour.
For instance, a barley-rich bourbon is often believed to be quite savoury with warm and subtle traces of nutmeg. Conversely, high-rye bourbon tends to be quite spicy and is often associated with notes of cinnamon.
Similar Drinks & Bourbon Substitutes
As we’ve already explored, there several varieties of American whiskey that have a lot in common with bourbon. Its closest relative will be corn whiskey and its high use of corn results in a very sweet-tasting beverage.
Alternatively, you can consider rye and wheat whiskey, which both taste slightly different as we already explained above. Meanwhile, there are other whiskeys that you can consider from around the world. Most, however, will be produced using other ingredients.
Scotch whisky, for instance, uses malted barley. As a result, it’s a much more buttery and savoury beverage. Similarly, some regions will smoke the malted barley with peat, which results in a unique flavour often associated with Hebridean territories like Islay and Skye.
That said, Scotch whisky is aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Since the barrels have been used, they don’t impart as much flavour, but there is still a noticeable influence.
Otherwise, Irish whiskey may bear a closer resemblance to bourbon in that it is lighter and more floral. Since it’s usually triple-distilled, the barley is less noticeable with the wood playing a greater role.
Interestingly, though, Mexico has a few corn whiskeys given its strong maize agriculture. They’re certainly worth checking out as a unique
Aside from it being made in a neighbouring state, Tennessee whiskey is technically identical to bourbon. In fact, the process it follows officially allows it to carry the “bourbon” label but producers have chosen to distinguish themselves with the name of their home state.
Be mindful of sour mash whiskey, mind. Although this technique can be used to make bourbon whiskey, it results in a distinctive flavour that’s quite acidic. For instance, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is a sour mash and it tastes very different to regular bourbon!
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Bourbon
Despite its sweet flavour, bourbon whiskey should contain no sugar. In fact, the use of any additives, including caramel colouring, is prohibited in straight bourbon whiskey.
Although bourbon is made from grain that contains gluten, the distillation process should separate the protein from the resulting whiskey. In mild cases of gluten intolerance, it should be fine.
However, some people with more severe conditions like Celiac’s disease do, albeit occasionally, report some complaints. Generally speaking, though, any distilled spirit should be gluten-free.
Otherwise, bourbon whiskey contains no carbs and is very light in calories. Don’t expect more than 70 calories in a single 1 Oz (30 ml) shot.
Now that you have read our introductory bourbon guide, take a deeper dive into our resources!