What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of American Whiskey, it is a distilled spirit that is primarily made from corn and aged in barrels. Bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it originated. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA but it is strongly associated with the state of Kentucky. Bourbon has several legal requirements for it to be made for US consumption.

Bourbon must be:

  • Made from a grain mixture that must be at least 51% corn
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof and 80% ABV.
  • Aged in new charred-oak barrels
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof or 62.5% ABV.
  • It must be bottled at 80 proof or more or 40% ABV.

Bourbon has no minimum age requirements.

How should you enjoy bourbon?

I always recommend everyone try each bourbon neat, this is the way the distiller created it and intended for it to be enjoyed, after you try it neat make some adjustments until you find what works best for you and for each bourbon, add ice, a splash of water, or mix a classic cocktail.

Bourbon Terms

Mash Bill: A mash bill is simply a bourbon recipe. Most bourbons are a mix of wheat, corn, rye, and occasionally barley.

Age Statement: A disclaimer that shows you the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Any bourbon that is older than four years is not required by law to list its age on the bottle.

Straight Bourbon: Straight Bourbon must be at least two years old. If it is older than two but younger than four it must carry an age statement on its bottle that reflects the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Straight Bourbon can not include any artificial colors or flavors.

High Rye: A bourbon in which the second major ingredient is rye is known as a high-rye bourbon. Rye is a spicier and richer grain than either corn or wheat, and high-rye bourbons are usually spicier and richer as a result.

Wheated Bourbon: A bourbon in which the second major ingredient is wheat is known as a wheated bourbon. Wheated bourbons are sweeter than other bourbons.

Sour Mash: Sour mash whiskey is made by taking a portion of previously used mash and adding it to a fresh batch. This makes the mash taste sour, but will not affect the flavor of the finished whiskey. The Sour mash process helps ensure consistency from batch to batch and  lowers the pH of the batch, leading to more efficient fermentation.

Bottle Proof: Before bourbon is bottled it is diluted with water to bottling proof. 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume is the lowest a bourbon can be diluted to and still be called a bourbon. Adding water is a way to stretch the supply of bourbon, making it less expensive to produce. Bourbons are sold at various proofs such as 90, 95, 100, or higher.

Cask Strength: Cask strength bourbon is undiluted. Whatever proof it comes out of the barrel at is what you get in the bottle. Cask strengths vary from barrel to barrel, based on a number of factors, such as warehouse placement, weather conditions, to name a few. Evaporation plays a big part in the final proof. If more alcohol evaporates out it will be a lower proof, If more water evaporates it will be higher.

Angel’s share: The portion of Bourbon in an aging barrel that’s lost to evaporation.

Backset: The thin, watery part of a previously distilled batch of whiskey mash that is added ‒ or “set back” ‒ into the next batch. Also “sour mash, setback, stillage or spent beer.”

Beer still: A giant apparatus in which the main component is a very tall metal column used to separate the alcohol from the water in the distiller’s beer by vaporizing the alcohol content. Also called a “continuous still.” The spirit produced is called “low wines.”

Bung: The stopper used to seal a barrel.

Charring: The process that sets fire to the interior of barrels for less than one minute and creates a layer of charred wood. Distillers can choose from four levels of char.

Corn whiskey: A whiskey made from a mash containing a minimum of 80 percent corn and, if it is aged at all, must be aged in used or uncharred oak barrels.

Distiller’s beer: The thick, fermented mash of cooked grains, water and yeast that is transferred from the fermenter to the beer still for the first distillation.

Doubler: A large copper still used to accomplish the second distillation of American whiskey. It effectively removes impurities and concentrates the alcohol even further. “Low wines” go in; “high wines” come out.

Fermentation: The process by which yeast transforms sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Fermenter: A giant tub made of metal or cypress in which the mash of cooked grains and water meet the yeast. They mingle, the yeast begins to act on sugars in the grain, and fermentation occurs over a few days. This produces alcohol within the mash and turns it into distiller’s beer.

Heads: The first section of the high wines to exit the doubler or thumper; this spirit is high in impurities and sent back to the still for redistillation.

High wines: The final spirit produced by the secondary distillation, ready for aging.

Low wines: The name of the spirit after it has passed through the beer or continuous still for its first distillation.

Malted barley: Barley that has been partially germinated and then heated or roasted to stop the germination. Malted barley (or any malted grain) contains enzymes that convert starches into the fermentable sugars on which yeast feeds. These enzymes are not present in unmalted grains.

Mash tub: A large tub where the grains are combined with water and cooked to soften them and break down the starch into simple sugars before the resulting “mash” is transferred to the fermenter. Also called a “cooker.”

Nose: The aroma of a whiskey.

Proof: Measurement of beverage alcohol on a scale, in America, of 200. A 100° proof spirit contains 50 percent alcohol.

Rackhouse: The building in which whiskey is aged, sometimes referred to as the “warehouse.”

Ricks: The wooden structures on which barrels of whiskey rest during aging.

Single barrel whiskey: Whiskey drawn from one barrel that has not been mingled with any other whiskeys.

Small batch whiskey: A product of mingling select barrels of whiskey that have matured into a specific style.

Tails: The last section of high wines to exit the doubler or thumper; this spirit is high in impurities and sent back to the still for redistillation.

Thief: A tubular instrument for removing a sample from a barrel.

Thumper: One of the types of stills used to accomplish the second distillation of American whiskey. It effectively removes impurities and concentrates the alcohol even further. “Low wines” go in; “high wines” come out. Thumpers differ from doublers in that the low wines enter a thumper as vapors that are bubbled through water, causing the stills to make a thumping sound; a doubler makes no distinctive noise since the low wines enter in condensed, liquid form.

Yeast: A living organism that feeds on fermentable sugars, transforming them to beverage alcohol, congeners, carbon dioxide, and heat.

2 thoughts on “What is Bourbon?

  1. Mike MIlls

    Please check your explaination of “Cask Strength”, I think it should read …” Whatever proof it comes out of the bottle (barrel) at is what you get in the bottle.

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