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Types of Bourbon

Bourbon 101: The Regulations, Varieties, and Ways to Imbibe

Bourbon is experiencing a resurgence as of late. The American-made whiskey isn't just for cowboys or businessmen anymore. If you're curious as to what makes bourbon bourbon, here's the 411 for your 101:

  • During the late 18th century, European settlers in America started making whiskey using corn as the main grain (since it was so readily available). These early producers aged the corn whiskey in oak barrels, keeping in line with traditional whiskey making. Because corn is a sweet grain, bourbon tends to be a sweet whiskey with oak, toast, vanilla, and toffee flavors.
  • The American-made corn whiskey became known as "bourbon," because it was first made in the original Bourbon County of Virginia (present-day Kentucky). Even though bourbon technically can be made anywhere in the US, the Kentucky area is hailed for its incredibly pure, limestone-filtered water, which naturally removes any metals and minerals that could affect the way the bourbon tastes. About 97 percent of bourbons are made near Bardstown, KY.
  • To this day, the US government regulates that bourbon must be made in America from at least 51 percent corn. The rest is malted barley and a flavoring grain — either wheat or rye. It has to be distilled at no higher than 160 proof and must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels for at least two years (to be considered "straight" bourbon). No additives are allowed (not even to change the color), except for pure water to bring down the proof; the bourbon has to be bottled at least 80 proof.
  • Lately, bourbon makers are offering small batch or single barrel bourbons for a heftier sum. Small batch bourbons (a term coined by Jim Beam in the '80s) are made by mixing bourbon from several different barrels (though from the same batch) before bottling. For larger distilleries, this could equate to hundreds of barrels. Single barrel bourbon is made from bottling one single cask (aka barrel) of bourbon. The bottle of the bourbon will have the barrel number on the label to distinguish it.

Keep reading for the different varieties.

  1. Traditional bourbon is made from 70 to 80 percent corn with equal parts rye and barley and is produced under the strict US regulations mentioned above. To keep the color and flavor of the bourbon consistent batch after batch, the distiller will save some of the mash (or mixture of grain, yeast, and water) used in the previous batch to start the next one, similar to a sourdough starter. The flavor of traditional bourbon is often described as sweet and spicy, and some examples include Evan Williams, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, and Wild Turkey.
  2. Rye-high bourbon is made with slightly less corn, about twice the amount of rye, and a small percentage of barley compared to the traditional bourbon recipe. Rye-high bourbons are less sweet and more spicy and have a peppery, rye bread flavor. Examples include Basil Hayden's, Four Roses, and Bulleit.
  3. Wheat bourbon is made like the traditional bourbon recipe; the only difference is wheat replaces the rye to pronounce the sweetness of the corn for a soft, sugar-forward bourbon. Maker's Mark and Old Fitzgerald are some of the most well-known wheat bourbons.

Now that you know everything about bourbon, how does one drink it? The bold can drink their bourbon neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of water or soda, and there are always classic cocktails like an old fashioned or a mint julep. However, even if those methods of preparation aren't for you, these days, bars are developing all sorts of chic ways to integrate bourbon — from sparkling bourbon cocktails to the revolver, with orange bitters and coffee liqueur.

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