Lesson 01: What is Bourbon?

This is the first of (hopefully) many “Bourbon 101” posts, where I will try to answer different questions, under the “American Whiskey” umbrella. And why not kick if off with one of the most fundamental questions:

Bourbon is one of approximately 35 different types of American whiskeys that are officially recognized by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). It is also – by miles – the type of whiskey that is most popular and thus produced in the largest quantities.

To be able to call your product Bourbon, you must adhere to a number of very strict rules, that are almost all made to ensure high quality. The rules are:

  1. Bourbon must be made in the US. It is the only one of the 35 different types that have this restriction. Many people think Bourbon can only be made in Kentucky – but all 50 states can produce Bourbon. This rule was determined by a law passed in 1964, categorizing Bourbon a “distinct product of the United States”. This is very similar to e.g. Tequila, which can only be made in Mexico.
  2. The mash bill must consist of minimum 51% corn. The term “mash bill” refers to the percentage of different grains that are used to make the alcohol. This is also sometimes referred to as the recipe. The requirement for minimum 51% corn is made to ensure a certain taste profile. You can use 100% corn if you like, but minimum is 51%. Other grain types are typically rye, barley and wheat.
  3. The distillation process cannot go higher than 160 proof (80% Alcohol By Volume – ABV) . This rule is made to ensure high quality. If the proof of the distillate had been higher, the quality would suffer, as you start losing the taste from the grains and the yeast as the percentage increases. Vodka, as a contrast, is typically distilled to 190 proof (95% ABV) before being watered down, which is why vodka almost has no taste. If you do not know how a distillation process works then don’t worry, as I will explain this in the next lessons.
  4. The distillate can not be more than 125 proof  (62.5% ABV), when entering the barrels for ageing. The distillate is the liquid that is being produced during the distillation process. Having a maximum strength for entering the barrels is gain to to ensure quality. The lower the strength when entering the barrels, the less water has to be added during the bottling step (since most products needs to be watered down) – and a smaller dilution creates a better flavor. This specific topic is a little technical, which is why I will be covering it in a separate lesson.
  5. Must be aged in a new charred oak container. Let us take those last four words in reverse:
    • Even though everyone uses barrels, it could be any type of container, such as a bucket – but that would obviously be ridiculous. A barrel is a pretty ingenious thing, as it can be handled by one person, even though it weighs around 500 lbs (235 kg), when full. Most Bourbon barrels holds 53 gallons (200 liters)
    • The container must be made from oak. Many people think it has to be American White Oak, but all types of oak are allowed. Oak has phenomenal integrity properties – which is why it has been chosen. Will be explained in another lesson.
    • The oak container must be charred. The charring process is also the topic of a separate lesson, but I can at least mention here that charring facilitates the interaction between the wood and the distillate – and especially the extraction of the natural wood sugars.
    • The charred oak container must be new. When it has been used once, it can never be used again for Bourbon. This is another rule that ensures high quality, almost like when you make tea: It is better the first time you use the teabag. Used Bourbon barrels are typically sold to other whiskey manufacturers around the world, which is why you often can see e.g. a Scotch whiskey that has been “aged in a Bourbon cask
  6. Only water can be added to the distillate. This is yet again to ensure quality and to make sure that artificial “things” are not added. Bourbon is the only one of the 35 American whiskey types that has this rule. Other types can add up to 2.5% “things” to the whiskey, unless the manufacturer uses the word “Straight” on the bottle (in which case no additives are allowed). Adding caramel coloring (E150a) like in e.g. Scotland and Ireland is therefore not allowed. I will cover the term “straight” in a separate lesson.
  7. When sold to the consumer, the alcohol must be at least 80 proof (40% ABV). Quite good rule, actually, because if it gets lower, it REALLY does taste watery.

Phew, that was quite a mouthful.

But did I not forget something? What about age requirements? Just like whiskey has to be at least three years old when sold in Europe, surely there must be some requirements for Bourbon??

Nope – there are no ageing requirements for Bourbon! That means that if the distillate has spent one second in a new charred oak container (and adhered to the other rules), you can call it a Bourbon.

Two exceptions to this rule: If you use the word “Straight” on the label, it must be agreed for at least two years – and if you use the term “Bottled-in-bond”, minimum four years are required. But more about those terms in future lessons 😊 

Oh, and one final thing: If you blend Bourbons of different ages in the product you sell to the consumers (which is absolutely allowed) – and you display the age on the bottle, you can only show the age of the youngest whiskey. Even if 99.99% of the whiskey is 23 years old and 0.01% is two years old – you will have to call your whiskey a two year old product. This protects the consumer from the lack of transparency that is going on in e.g. the rum industry, where a 20 year rum product may only contain a modest amount of 20 year old rum.

And that concludes this lesson.

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Corrections, suggestions for other posts, or any other feedback? Then please leave a comment below or write me on henrik@thebourbonnerd.com

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