From its fabled Southern origins, dating back to the mid-19th century, this whiskey has earned the reputation of being America’s liquor.
It’s burnt golden nectar, with its singed sweetness, has a Congressional seal of approval with official status as ‘America’s Native Spirit’.
Bourbon drinkers will settle for nothing less.
There are many different bourbon whiskeys available. Each has its own distinctive flavor and, as you drink them, you will determine what you do and don’t like.
The 3 Types of Bourbon:
A Intro To America’s Native Spirit
Bourbon is distilled all over the country, but Kentucky will always be considered its home state of production (…although there may be a few folks down in New Orleans and over in Tennessee who consider otherwise).
To be called a bourbon, the whiskey must:
- Have a mash (the grain-based mixture from which bourbon is made) that is at least 51% corn.
- Be distilled in charred oak barrels. These barrels give the liquor its distinctive golden hue.
- Be a maximum of 80% alcohol by volume.
Although there are no requirements on aging the whiskey the best batches are matured for at least four years. A batch aged less than two years is legally required to display its age on the bottle.
The 3 Types of Bourbon
1) Traditional Bourbon
The grain component used to make the mash of traditional bourbon is over 70% corn, (the remainder being equal parts rye and barley).
Its flavor is a balanced blend of sweet and spice.
The traditional varieties are the brands that typically first come to mind when thinking about bourbon.
2) Wheat Bourbon
Wheat Bourbon is prepared very similarly to Traditional.
The difference, as the name implies, is that wheat is used in its mash mixture (replacing the rye). This sweetens the flavor, and also softens the burn.
3) Rye Bourbon
If you’re starting to notice a trend, you may have already guessed what makes a Rye Bourbon.
Once again, the concentration of the grain mixture is key.
In Rye bourbon the mix will be less corn, almost no barley, and double the rye. Ryes are best known for their bite.
The Little Things
Traditional, wheat and rye are the basic types of bourbon, but similar to scotch and other whiskeys, these types break down further into sub-lines based on slight alterations in production techniques.
SMALL BATCH BOURBON
Unless otherwise stated, most bourbons, and whiskeys in general, are a blend of some kind. Small batch simply means that it is the blend of a small number of barrels.
What is small? There is no hard and fast number, but as a rule of thumb, small would be under 100.
SINGLE BARREL BOURBON
As it sounds, this liquor is produced from a single barrel. Taste, aroma and color vary from barrel to barrel. Because of this, every new single barrel release you try will be slightly different.
When whiskeys are filtered, some of its flavor is filtered out. Because of this, many argue that this is the most flavorful of all the types of bourbon. Quite simply, unfiltered bourbon is not filtered. This leaves the liquor with a hazy appearance.
There are federal laws regarding the definition of bourbon. Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made in a particular fashion. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the country, but it is most often associated with its origin site in Kentucky. The mash that the liquor is fermented from must be at least 51% corn and must be distilled to no higher than 80% alcohol. The liquor then must enter the new oak barrel for aging, minimum of 2 years at no more than 62.5% alcohol and bottled with at least 40% alcohol.
The description above fits straight bourbon whiskey to a tee. Straight bourbon is made from a single batch and aged in a new oak barrel. The liquid that comes out of the barrel is all that you’ll find in the bottle you buy. It is not mixed or blended with any other alcohols. It is, essentially, straight from the barrel.
Blended bourbon is slightly harder to find than most blended whiskeys. It has other additives for color or flavoring mixed in once the whiskey is out of the barrel At least 51% of the mixture has to be straight bourbon.
BOTTLED IN BOND BOURBON
Bottled in Bond is the most restricted bourbon. Not only does B.I.B. bourbon have to follow all the strict laws of bourbon, but also the 4 guidelines set down by the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 which states that to be BONDED bourbon it must:
- Be aged for at least 4 years old
- Be bottled at exactly 100 proof
- Be produced at a single distillery
- Be bottled from barrels put up in one season (barrels put up from Jan to Dec of a single year)
Because they have to use barrels put up in one season, it really limits the amount of bourbon that can be sold, so there are not that many B.I.B. bourbons produced any more. But Bonded bourbons made up the bulk of what was sold before Prohibition (1897 till 1920) and then during Prohibition as medicinal whiskey. It was “the good stuff” because you were guaranteed that the bourbon was a good age, and a good strong honest proof, and you knew it came from one distillery.
BARREL FINISHED BOURBON
These are bourbons that have been matured under all the regulations of bourbon, and then taken out of those barrels, and finished off in other wood finishes. This adds depth and complexity, and other types of flavors bourbons can’t achieve in standard oak barrels. Of course, technically they stop becoming bourbon the second they are put in to a used barrel, but they are arguably still bourbon, because they start out that way and plainly listed on the label, FINISHED in Port Wine Barrels, or whatever finish it is. The distilleries have to apply for a special permit to still use the word “bourbon” on the label, but it’s an important distinction because if they couldn’t state that, you might assume that they were using a cheap blended whiskey, or very young whiskey as the base spirit. So, a typical wording of this style would typically read something like,
“Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished in Cognac Casks”
One good thing about finishing in these types of barrels, is typically, you don’t have to age them too long in other woods to add this complexity. The distiller does not want to have the second wood over power the bourbon.
Bourbon’s unique character comes from the 51 to 79 percent corn in its recipe. The addition of water to crushed or rolled grain begins the fermentation process, and the fermented mash is distilled to produce a spirit that is no more than 80 percent alcohol by volume. Bourbon may be double-distilled and aged at least two years in charred oak barrels. The result is a mellow, woody blend of flavors that may be bottled straight out of a single barrel or blended from a number of barrels in a small batch. Sour mash whiskey uses the bourbon recipe but starts the mash with leftovers from a previous batch, much like the starter in sourdough bread. The sour mash process gives a sweeter, deeper flavor to the final product. The alcohol by volume content of bourbon and sour mash is adjusted to between 40 and 50 percent (80 to 100 proof) at bottling time.
The name “bourbon” has been legally controlled only since 1964, so makers exist in other counties. However, only bourbon made in Kentucky may use the name of the state on the label. Tennessee whiskey uses the bourbon recipe, but the distilled spirits are filtered through maple charcoal, adding a different overtone to the flavors. Makers will specify “sour mash” on the label if that process is used.
Did you know there is a difference between tasting your bourbon and drinking it?
The correct way to drink bourbon is however you like to drink it; mixed or on the rocks on a hot summer day, straight up next to the fire in the dead of winter, or with a twist of lemon with dinner. It’s all good.
But that’s very different from tasting bourbon. Tasting bourbon is a careful examination of the bourbon’s nuances and aromas without the hindrance of a mixer, or an abundance of ice or water that will ultimately dull the flavors.
Tasting bourbon may seem complicated. It may, at first, seem like people must have incredibly delicate palates to taste so many flavors in a bourbon when many people just taste, well, bourbon. But it isn’t difficult.
There are four essential categories to consider:
Appearance: Is it clear? Cloudy? Light amber or dark mahogany in color? Age, proof, and filtration methods all affect appearance. Hold the glass up to the light, or in front of a clean white sheet of paper to get a good look at it. Swirl it around the glass once or twice.
Aroma: Smell is a vital part of taste, and thus it’s very important to not skip the aroma portion of a taste. Keeping your lips parted, stick your nose right above the opening of your glass.
Taste: Don’t gulp the bourbon. No matter how strong it is, you’ll get used to the alcohol burn on the tongue until it doesn’t bother you. So, take a generous mouthful into your mouth and “chew” it. The folks at Jim beam call it the “Kentucky Chew.” Move the bourbon around inside your mouth with a chewing motion to coat your tongue. Notice the difference in flavors from the front to the back of your tongue. Finally, swallow it. The tongue has several tasting “zones.” The tip of the tongue detects sweetness. The middle of the tongue detects salty flavors, and the back of the tongue can taste bitterness. These zones, combined with the aroma, define the flavors of the bourbon.
Finish: the finish refers to the sensations after you’ve swallowed. How long does the taste stay with you? If it lingers for a while, that’s a long finish. If it dissipates quickly, it’s a short finish. Do any other flavors manifest in your mouth as the finish dissipates? What textures did you notice? Did you catch a warm sensation in your upper body after swallowing? Distillers call that the “Kentucky Hug.”
Once you’ve done that, you may find it helpful to add a few drops of distilled water to the bourbon. Don’t over-water it! You can always add more water to the glass, but you can’t un-mix it once you’ve poured it. Adding distilled water can help open up the aromas and flavors of the bourbon as well as bring the proof down slightly if it’s a high proof spirit. And why distilled? Simple. Iron is the mortal enemy of whiskey, ruining the taste. That’s why bourbon is mostly made in Kentucky- the entire central portion of the state sits on a limestone shelf. The limestone naturally filters iron out of the streams and creeks. Distilled water is free of iron.
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