America’s whiskey identity is wrapped up in bourbon, the corn-based spirit that emerged in the 1780s in the southeastern state of Kentucky. Up until that point, rum had been the most popular spirit in the American colonies. But war with the British Empire put a serious dent in the availability of rum. Thus the Revolutionary War and America’s defeat of Britain resulted in both a new nation and a new style of whiskey.
Bourbon was not America’s first whiskey of note. Rye whiskies were being made in the hills of Western Pennsylvania throughout the 1770s by Scots-Irish immigrants. It was these distillers who set off the so-called Whiskey Rebellion.
This rebellion was a reaction of grain farmers and distillers to a whiskey tax enacted by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The developing insurrection was quelled by George Washington and a garrison of troops in 1791 without a shot being fired.
It is bourbon, though, that is synonymous with US whiskey and for good reason. The corn-based liquor is uniquely American and has become one of the world’s most sought-after and highly collected whisk(e)y styles.
This guide explains what bourbon is, how it’s made and recommends several good options to explore.
What makes whiskey a bourbon?
There are several US laws that create guidelines for what can and cannot be called ‘bourbon’.
• Bourbon must be grown and distilled in the US – though not specifically in Kentucky. In 1964 the US Congress passed a resolution declaring bourbon to be ‘a distinctive product of the United States’. This resolution was passed to protect the term bourbon from being used beyond US borders.
• Bourbon’s ‘mash bill’ (grain composition) must be 51% corn. Bourbons are typically made from 70% corn, as well as other grains, usually wheat, rye and barley. As a grain that was indigenous to the Americas, bourbon’s corn-based identity differentiates it from Scotch and Irish whiskies.
• Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. To be designated a ‘straight-bourbon’, it must be aged in this way for two years. Most bourbons are aged in white oak barrels, which are native to the southeast of the US.
• Bourbon may not contain any additives for flavour or colour. All of the flavours and colours in bourbon must come from the spirit and the barrel (Scotch for example, can contain ‘caramel colouring’). Water may be added to bourbon throughout the production process to lower its ‘proof’ (alcohol by volume or abv).
• Alcohol content. There are three different stipulations required of bourbon’s proof throughout its production.
◦ Bourbon must not be distilled at higher than 160 proof or 80% abv.
◦ Bourbon must not be higher than 125 proof (62.5% abv) when barreled.
◦ Bourbon must be 80 proof or higher (40% abv) when bottled.
How is bourbon aged?
Bourbon’s signature sweet flavours are imparted by the ageing process. Prior to barrelling, distilled bourbon is a clear liquid containing only the flavours of the grains. Unlike wine, bourbon and all whiskies stop ageing once they are bottled.
Ageing requirements are not stipulated for bourbons. However, making a bourbon smooth and drinkable requires enough time in an oak barrel to mellow out the alcohol and impart the sweet, darker characteristics the whiskey is known for.
The climate in Kentucky, where 95% of bourbon is made, is fairly mild in winter, with hot and humid summers. This means that the respiration of the bourbon in the barrels is constant – except when it gets abnormally cold. Bourbon barrels houses are not temperature-controlled to maximise the impact of Kentucky’s climate on the ageing whiskey.
A ‘straight-bourbon’ is aged at least two years. Meanwhile bourbon that is ‘bottled in bond’ must be aged at least four years.
What does bourbon taste like?
Compared to its world whisk(e)y counterparts, bourbon has a unique sweet, toasty flavour profile. Bourbon’s flavours come from a combination of factors. There is a signature sweetness owing to its corn-based composition, which can also help impart a creaminess to the spirit. Then the oak barrels, and their char levels, contribute a variety of aromas and flavours, from sweet to spicy, that are a signature of American bourbon.
Chris Morris, Master Distiller Emeritus at Woodford Reserve, explains: ‘The spring water in central Kentucky is limestone in origin, so it brings a distinct minerality to the wash. The summers are extremely hot and the winters very cold. The result is a whiskey that has a relatively sweet and spicy grain note with rich, sweet aromatic oak influences.’
Bourbon for beginners: seven to try
Castle & Key Small Batch Wheated Bourbon
From Batch 1, released in 2022, the mash bill consists of 73% white corn, 10% wheat and 17% malted barley. Distillers often use wheat to give their bourbons a soft, fruity character rather than the spice that can come from rye grains. Mission accomplished with this batch: aromas of sweet apricot, honey and shortbread. The palate is smooth, fruity and loaded with vanilla sweetness. Aged five years. Alcohol 50%
Clyde May’s Straight 6 Year Old Bourbon
Clyde May’s whiskies are made in Alabama and aged six years in American oak barrels. This is a fruit-forward bourbon emphasising notes of baked pear and bright apple aromas. Flavours of nutmeg, cinnamon and an apple pie finish. Alc 55%
Hardin’s Creek Jacob’s Well
Hardin’s Creek is a small-batch whiskey programme from global spirits company Beam Suntory. This whiskey is a blend of 16-year-old bourbon and 15-year-old ‘high rye’ bourbon. It’s absolutely smooth and luxurious at this age. Aromas of oak spice, ginger and caramel match with a palate of honeyed pear, nutmeg and brown sugar. Alc 54.5%
Kentucky Owl Takumi Edition
The Takumi Edition bourbon is a selection of 4-, 5-, 6- and 13-year-old Kentucky straight bourbons. It’s a collaboration between Master Blenders John Rhea of Kentucky Owl and Yusuke Yahisa of Japan’s Nagahama Distillery. This bourbon is marked by elegance and nuance. Floral and tropical fruit aromatics. The palate is at once savoury, turning towards ripe apple, honey, and ginger. The Japanese influence is obvious. Alc 50%
Ezra Brooks Old Ezra 7 Year Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Bottled at barrel-strength, this bourbon is a blend of 78% corn, 12% malted barley and 10% rye. Sweet vanilla and caramel aromas are followed by a palate marked by brown sugar, caramel apple and a kiss of orange peel. Alc 58.5%
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Unforgotten
A blend of 13-year-old bourbon, as well as 8- and 9-year-old rye whiskey, that is further finished in rye casks. This is an intentional recreation of a happy accident from 2010, and it’s one worth repeating. Caramel, honey, and ginger aromas lead into a palate of rich roasted corn, baked pear and baking spices. Absolutely stunning. Alc 52.5%
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
A bourbon lover’s bourbon that is tremendously approachable and very well priced. Made from 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. Aged for six years in a new barrel before being transferred to a second new barrel for another year of ageing. Loaded with caramel and baked apple aromas. Marked by rich sweet flavours of vanilla and spiced apple on the palate. Alc 45%