What is Bourbon? The Ultimate Guide to America’s Native Spirit

Bourbon is more than just any old whiskey category—it’s the quintessential American spirit.

From sipping neat or on the rocks to blending into classic cocktails like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, there’s something special about drinking bourbon that goes beyond just enjoying its flavor.

It’s a whiskey steeped in history and tradition that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is an American whiskey distilled from corn mash. While other whiskeys may be made with other types of grain, bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn in order to be classified as such.

The remaining ingredients can vary depending on the distiller but typically include wheat, rye and malted barley. The grains are mixed with water, fermented, then distilled and aged in new charred oak barrels.

This process gives bourbon its distinctive flavor — a smooth sweetness typically delivering hints of caramel and vanilla. Many folks refer to bourbon as a “sweet” spirit, but Bourbon can’t have additives, coloring, flavoring, etc. All of that robust flavor complex from a combination of distilled grain and barrel aging.

The History of Bourbon

Despite being first distilled in the 18th century, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that bourbon was even given its name. It took until the 1870s for this iconic American drink to be associated with Kentucky, with its etymology being claimed as part of that region’s history.

In 1964, Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit” and imposed strict regulations on what could legally be called “bourbon whiskey.”

These regulations include that all bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that contains at least 51% corn; distilled to no more than 160 proof; put into new, charred oak barrels for aging at no higher than 125pf; bottled at no less than 80 proof; and contain no added flavors or colors.

These regulations have remained largely unchanged since they were first enacted over 50 years ago.

Today, despite being able to be made anywhere in the U.S., the spirit is generally thought of as being a deeply connected part of southern culture and with Kentucky specifically. The production and consumption of this drink have been ingrained in American tradition for centuries and it remains hugely popular throughout the country.

How Long Is Bourbon Aged?

While any straight bourbon aged between two to four years must display an age statement indicating the youngest spirits in the bottle, those aged over four years require no age statement due to their extended maturation. Many brands will choose to display age statements on their bourbons, however, as a show of transparency or a means to boast their higher age statements.

Where Can Bourbon Be Made?

Bourbon must be made in the U.S. It can come from anywhere in the U.S., however, 95% of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky, leading to a common misconception that bourbon must be made in Kentucky.

Where specific U.S. states are concerned, federal law requires that the whiskey be distilled and aged only within the same state to legally call itself a bourbon of that state.

Bourbon vs. Other Whiskeys

Ever ask yourself, what’s the difference between bourbon and other whiskeys? Well, it’s pretty simple — all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Bourbon is a type of whiskey made from a mash of grains that must include at least 51% corn. It must be aged in new, charred-oak containers and have no additives.

Rye vs. Bourbon

When it comes to flavor, bourbon tends to be sweeter and can sometimes present a more oily mouthfeel than rye due to its high corn content. Common flavor notes in bourbon include vanilla, caramel, and oak. Rye whiskey, on the other hand, tends to have a grassy and peppery taste with a signature spicy finish. Depending on the expression and time spent aging, there may be notes of oak, smoke or fruit.

The biggest difference between bourbon and rye comes right in the beginning — raw materials. For bourbon, the grain mixture must contain at least 51% corn, while rye whiskey  must contain at least 51% rye. The rest of the mixture is usually made up of barley, corn and/or wheat. This difference in ingredients gives each type of whiskey its unique flavor profile.

Scotch vs. Bourbon

Scotch whisky is distilled and aged in Scotland for at least three years. It is made from malted barley, which gives it its distinctive flavor and aroma. Scotch whisky is usually aged in oak barrels, many times from barrels sold off by bourbon producers. Unlike bourbon, which must be aged in new barrels, scotch is often aged in barrels that have previously stored other spirits or wines as well, such as bourbon or sherry. The most common types of Scotch whisky are single malt and blended Scotch. Single malt Scotch is made from one type of grain, while blended Scotch can contain multiple grains.

Bourbon whiskey, on the other hand, is an American whiskey made from corn and aged in charred new oak barrels. Bourbon tends to have a sweeter taste than scotch.

Both Scotch and bourbon are popular spirits enjoyed around the world, but they have distinct differences in their production processes and flavors.

Single Malt Whiskey vs. Bourbon

Single malt whiskey is made from malted barley, while bourbon is made from corn. Both types of whiskey are aged in oak barrels, but single malt whiskey must be aged for at least three years.

Generally, single malt whiskey has an malty flavor and a hint of sweetness due to the malted barley. Scotch made with peat has a distinct, smoky flavor. Bourbon, on the other hand, typically has a sweeter taste due to the corn used in its production.

When it comes to price, single malt whiskey tends to be more expensive than bourbon because it often takes longer to produce, uses more expensive grains, and requires importing and extra taxes to retail in the United States.

Wheat Whiskey vs. Bourbon

Wheat whiskey is an American whiskey made from a mashbill that contains at least 51% wheat. This grain gives it a distinct flavor profile that sets it apart from other whiskeys like bourbon or rye. Its flavor profile includes notes of fruit and floral flavors, as well as a what is more routinely attributed as a smooth finish and lighter body.

When comparing wheat whiskey to bourbon, there are some key differences in terms of taste and production methods. Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in its mashbill, while wheat whiskey must contain at least 51% wheat.

This difference in grains results in different flavor profiles between the two styles of whiskey. Bourbon tends to have more complex flavors, while wheat whiskey has softer flavors with notes of fruit and floral flavors. Folks who love sweeter whiskeys, and those especially enamored by pours like Weller, should give Wheat Whiskey a look. It’s still widely “under the radar” as whiskey fans look towards wheated bourbons over wheat whiskey.

Another difference between the two styles is their production methods. Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels before being bottled, while wheat whiskey does not have any aging length requirements.


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