10 Minute Expert – Know Your Bourbon

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We will start off by answering one of the most asked questions;

What Is The difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?

If anyone ever asks you this question you can give them this simple, easy to remember answer;

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but whiskey is not always a bourbon.

To expand a little, bourbon is a specific type of whiskey which must meet certain requirements to be called as such. There are many whiskeys, such as Jack Daniels for example, that do meet all the requirements to call themselves bourbon, however they choose not to for one reason or another.

Continue reading for the ultimate 10 minute expert guide to bourbon.

The History


Bourbon whiskey (American spelling, the Scottish spell it “whisky”) is distilled from a ‘mash’ which must be made of at least 51% corn grain. The mash and the distillation process are the two most important elements that make bourbon what it is today. How did we get to today’s bourbon? Well let’s have a little history!

The name Bourbon comes from the historical association with the town Old Bourbon, which is now called Bourbon County in Kentucky. Dating back to it’s first production in the 18th Century, bourbon can be produced anywhere in the US, however it’s ties remain close to the Deep South.

On May 4, 1964, US Congress officially recognized bourbon whiskey as a product of the United States, since which, it has been reported that almost 97% of all bourbon whiskey is currently produced and aged somewhere near the town of Bardstown, Kentucky.

Production Process

The mixture for Bourbon is know as Mash Bill, which is made up of 70% corn and the remainder including wheat, rye and malted barley. ‘Wheated Bourbon’ is a mash that replaced the rye with wheat.

The grains a mixed with water and ground down, often a scoop of the previous Bourbon batch will be added to the mixture to ensure consistency in PH levels. This is process produces what is known as a sour mash.

Yeast is then added to the mash and left to ferment. The mash is then distilled to achieve a 65% – 80% alcohol content.

Charred-oak barrels are used  for the aging process. This specific method is used to color the clear liquid and flavour it via the caramelized sugars in the charred wood.

Bourbons will gain more color and flavour the longer they are left in the barrel to mature, as this is the ultimate goal. However bourbon can be left to age too long, this will result in a woody and unbalanced product.

Once sufficiently mature (the older the more expensive is the general rule of thumb!), the bourbon is removed from the oak barrel, and diluted with water. It is then bottled to at least 80 US proof (40% abv). Most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 US proof.

Bourbon whiskey may be sold at less than 80% proof but must be labelled as “diluted bourbon”.


Types of Use

Bourbon should be served straight, and either diluted with a little water, or poured over ice cubes, alternatively it can be mixed with a little soda water and added in to cocktails.

Some cocktails that use bourbon;

The Manhattan

The Old Fashioned

Mint Julep

How to Taste Bourbon

The Kentucky Chew

The Kentucky Chew

There are 4 main elements in which we score a bourbon.

1) Appearance

The appearance of bourbon can be used to understand the maturity level. The color is visible proof that it is matured in charred oak barrels.

2) Aroma

Swirl the bourbon in the glass a few times and take 3 short sniffs. You should be able to identify a variety of aromas. You can train your sense of smell just like a chef can train his or her palate.

Some of the aromas you may encounter include;

  • Sweet aromatic flavours, such as vanilla, caramel, honey and butterscotch
  • Fruity flavours, such as apple, pear, figs, raisins, dates, citrus and rose
  • Spice flavours, black pepper, tobacco, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon
  • Woody flavours, for example oak, cedar, pine, and nuts such as almonds and pecans
  • Grainy flavours, such as corn, malt and rye

3) Taste

First take a small sip, swish it around the mouth for a few seconds and then swallow. How does it taste? Does it cause a flavour eruption in the mouth or can you taste just 1 or 2 different flavours?

4) The Finish

Finally take a small sip again, this time we are looking to judge the finish of the bourbon. Does it stay with you for a long time or is it relatively short? Is it dry? Does it give you that warm fuzzy feeling or does it burn all the way down?

It is considered good practice to have a glass of water and salt-free crackers on hand to refresh your palate between sips.

Here’s Jim Bean employee and Master Distiller Fred Noe showing us how to perform the ‘Kentucky Chew’.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

If you are planning a holiday into bourbon country then you should definitely check out the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The trail has miles upon miles of brilliant countryside across the Bluegrass State. Taking in Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Nashville and Knoxville.

There are 6 distilleries to visit including;

The Four Roses Distillery
Heaven Hill Distillery
Jim Bean Distillery
Maker’s Mark Distillery
Wild Turkey Distillery
Woodford Reserve Distillery

Find out more here.

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