Words by: Simon Difford
Bourbon is as American as the Stars and Stripes, the Grand Canyon and pumpkin pie, but there are some common misconceptions as to what exactly bourbon is and how it is made. Bourbon is a specific category of America whiskey and to be labelled a 'bourbon', it must be produced according to a strict set of rules. The following 'ABC' is a handy reminder of these specific criteria.
A = American: must be made in the USA (not just Kentucky).
B = Barrels: must be aged in brand new, charred oak barrels at 62.5% alc./vol. or less.
C = Corn: must have a mash bill formed from at least 51% corn (but not more than 79%) plus a flavouring grain - either wheat or rye - and a little malted barley (though there are no rules governing the quantities of these other grains.
D = Distillation: must be distilled to a strength of not more than 80% alc./vol. Most bourbon is distilled to between 62.5% and 70% alc./vol.
E = Entry: must go into barrel at no more than 62.5% alc./vol.
F = Filling: must be bottled at a minimum of 40% alc./vol.
G = Genuine: must not contain any artificial flavours, colours or other alcohols.
Surprisingly, there is no minimum age requirement for bourbon. However, USA 'straight' whiskey (be it 'straight bourbon whiskey', 'straight rye whiskey', 'straight corn whiskey' or 'straight Tennessee whiskey) must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred oak casks. Any whiskey which has been aged for less than four years must state its age on the label. Generally two- to four-year-old whiskies are best avoided.
No colouring or flavouring may be added to 'straight' whiskey, however, bourbon labelled as a 'blend' or 'blended' may contain added colouring, flavouring and other spirits, typically un-aged grain neutral spirits. However, at least 51 per cent of such a product must consist of straight bourbon.
Contrary to popular belief, Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States but is native to the South. Peculiarly, only Kentucky Bourbon can advertise the state where it is made so, for example, there no Tennessee Bourbons. The reason for this is highly political: Kentucky had more senators than its neighbours and blatantly used its voting power to achieve this preferential outcome.
Made at the Bernheim Distillery by Heaven Hill with a mashbill of wheat, corn and malt, Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve is what’s known as a wheated bourbon with wheat used instead of rye. Bottled without an age statement but considered to be around six years old. Pencil shavings, maple, caramel/brown sugar, dried fruit, black cherries, vanilla, new leather and toasted cashew nuts.
Launched in 2008, Rebel Yell is made with a mash bill of wheat and corn. It’s bottled without an age statement at 40% alc./vol. Vanilla rubbed new leather, toasty brazil nuts, earthy aromas and freshly sawn oak with brown butter and black pepper.
The Old Fitzgerald bourbon brand was named after John E. Fitzgerald, who according to a family biography of Pappy Van Winkle was a bonded treasury agent, so permitted to carry keys to the aging warehouses and often helped himself to some of the best bourbons. Brown bread, brown sugar, toffee, vanilla fudge, butterscotch, almond and light Christmassy spice.
Produced in batches of no more than 80 barrels, this bourbon is named after Evan Williams who earned the title ‘Kentucky’s First Distiller’ in 1783, when he started distilling on the banks of the Ohio River. Macaroon and almonds, pencil shavings, maple, brazil nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.
Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond is one of the few bottled-in-bond bourbons available. Bottled-In-Bond means it is bottled in a government supervised bonded warehouse at 50% alc./vol. (100 proof), is a minimum of four years old, and is the product of one distillery in one production season.
Initially aged for six years in new American oak before finishing for a further nine months in Groth Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. In case you were wondering, Groth is respected Napa Valley winery and its Cab Sauv is particularly well regarded. Toasty with linseed oil putty, grilled sweetcorn, roasted brazil nuts and shells, vanilla, blackened fruit cake and dried apricot. Faint cinnamon.
Made with a mash bill of 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% malted barley, this “selected reserve” Bulleit Bourbon is aged for new charred American white oak which have been set aside and allowed to age for 10 years. Grilled sweetcorn, buttery popcorn, nutmeg, cinnamon, nubuck leather and macadamia with toasted coconut macaroon.
Four Roses use ten different mash bills and yeast combinations and this 11 year old single barrel release uses what they code as OESF, a mashbill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley using their ‘F’ yeast strain. Char-grilled sweet corn, vanilla, toffee, brown sugar and maple syrup with cracked black pepper and cinnamon spice. Water amplifies notes of pencil shavings, clove spice and apple pie.
Distilled from Arkansas grown corn and wheat in Arkansas where the this bourbon is also aged, bottled and packaged. Roasted almond, toasty oak, cinnamon and caramel shortcake. Water turns more biscuity with butterscotch but toasty oak still dominates.
This Rock Town bourbon is so named due to being distilled in Arkansas from Arkansas corn and wheat. It is aged in small new charred oak barrels that are also coopered in Arkansas by Gibbs Brothers Cooperage. Toasty oak, breakfast cereal, brown sugar and pencil shavings with nutmeg and cinnamon spice. Water amplifies oak with faint smoky bacon.
Made from 95% Washington and 5% Oregon grain, 2bar claims to be “the first bourbon to be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled entirely in Seattle from all local grains.” (Batch #6 2bar Bourbon was released July 2014.)
Paths carved in the landscape by wild buffalo, known as ‘traces’, were used by early pioneers as they made their journey to the west. One such path in the area north of the Kentucky River was called the Great Buffalo Trace and it is here that the first Buffalo Trace distillery was completed in 1857 vanilla, rye, dried fruit, green apple peel, ripe apricot, butterscotch and cinnamon.
Released in 2013, Jim Beam 12 Year Old Signature Craft Bourbon Whiskey carries a 12 year old age statement. It is also described as being “small batch” although the size of each batch produced is not disclosed. Toasted bread, aniseed and spicy rye with cinnamon, honey, vanilla, caramel and faint wisps of smoke.
Marketed as being the ‘frontier whiskey’, this Kentucky straight bourbon was launched in 1987 by Tom Bulleit, the great-great grandson of Augustus Bulleit, who according to legend, first created Bulleit Bourbon in Louisville, Kentucky around 1830. Cinnamon and nutmeg spiced sandalwood, leather, corn-on-the-cob and vanilla.
Named Old Scout due to this bourbon being blended from whiskies ‘scouted out’ and purchased from third-party distilleries. Made from a high rye mashbill of 60% corn, 36% rye and 4% malt and aged ten years in new American oak barrels it is bottled without chill-filtration. Cherry, vanilla and nutty oak with cinnamon and black pepper spice. Water releases more cherry and vanilla.