Understanding the difference between whiskey and bourbon is confusing for some people, mainly because all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There are six criteria that will qualify a whiskey as bourbon, by law, which are as follows:
Produced/Distilled in the USA*
Made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn
Distilled at less than 160 proof (80% ABV)
No additives (except water to reduce proof where necessary)
Aged in new, charred white oak barrels**
Aged for a minimum of two years***
*It can't say "bourbon" on the label if it's not distilled in the United States. And it can't be "Kentucky Bourbon" unless it's distilled in Kentucky.
**By law bourbon must use NEW charred American white oak barrels. Scotch whiskey often recycles barrels first used for bourbon. Probably to try to steal some of the bourbon's flavor!
*** When no age of maturation is designated, four years is the “norm”.
Whiskey (also spelled whisky depending if you’re from Canada or Scotland) can be made anywhere and can be made from a variety of mash ingredients with a higher or lower corn ratio. For example, rye whiskey uses more rye than corn, scotch is made with malt and grain, Canadian whisky is often made with a fermented mash of cereal grain, and so on.
But, let’s get back to bourbon. There are five sources of flavor for bourbon:
Grain- referring to the mixture of grains used, which again by law is 51% corn, but the normal percentages seems to be between 70-78% corn. Corn gives its sweet flavor to the liquor, as well as a grainy edge. Malted barley is typically the other grain, because it helps with sweetness but mainly helps convert the starch into sugars which the yeast needs later for fermentation.
Water-Some distilleries say the water gives the distinctive flavor of the bourbon and it will vary by the source of water. Kentucky bourbon uses limestone filtered water which gives it such a “unique” flavor.
Fermentation- refers to the particular strand of yeast that is used which turns sugar into alcohol. Each distillery has its own particular strands that they use to give themselves their own unique flavor and profile.
Distillation- The fermented mash is pumped into the still house where it is distilled. The old fashioned method with copper pots is still used today, and that’s about all that really matters for most of us. The only other significant note here is that bourbon gets its unique flavor profile from cooking the grain solids in the mash during the whole process.
Maturation- This is all about aging, and most specifically, bourbon can be aged only in newly charred white oak barrels. Bourbon has a very active maturation process, which is to say that oak expands and contracts with the weather. It absorbs the bourbon in the summer time and expels it back into the batch in the winter time which is what gives bourbon such an oaky flavor. The number of years that this happens has a direct impact on the finished product. The only bad news about maturation in new oak barrels is that 3-5% of a barrel's content annually evaporates - this is known as the "angel share". As volume goes down due to the loss of water to the angel’s share, the whiskey that went into the barrel at around 110 proof will come out some years later around 120-125 proof.
Although a lot of bourbon is made in Kentucky, bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. However, only bourbon made in Kentucky can be designated with a “Kentucky Bourbon” label. The name “bourbon” actually comes from a county in Kentucky called Bourbon County.
Why should you drink bourbon and crave it above Tennessee Whiskey, Canadian Whisky, Rye Whiskey, Scotch Whisky or even, a favorite of mine, Irish Whiskey?
Bourbon, more than the other whiskeys, has complex flavors that build off one another…common flavors are toffee, caramel, vanilla, those types of things. Also nuts (mostly almond) and citrus (orange peel & lemon) seem to pop up a lot too. Bourbon hits your pallet and your senses with three things…the nose, the taste, and the finish.
The nose meaning the smell that you get from it when it’s in your glass. It opens up more when you swirl the glass, but if you really want to pick up different notes from the nose of the bourbon, having it straight up (meaning no ice in the glass) will reveal more flavors that on the rocks. I don’t’ think I need to explain the taste part of this trifecta and the finish is pretty self-explanatory as in how does it taste and feel after you’ve swallowed it. For me, the main thing about bourbon versus most other whiskey (whisky) is the finish. The finish is all about the burn; mild to severe. It changes depending on the woodiness and also the amount of leather flavor that you get with the bourbon on the pallet. I’ve noticed bourbon owns the other whiskeys with all three parts, which is why I stand by bourbon as my go- to whiskey to have straight up or on the rocks; not to mention, it’s just classy.
Here are my recommendations for both whiskey and bourbon. For whiskey, a good cross-road type of whiskey to warm you up is actually a blended whiskey from High West Distillery out of Park City Utah. High West Campfire is a phenomenal blend of rye whiskey, scotch whiskey, and the good stuff, bourbon. It has a very smooth flavor that finishes about as easily and as delicious as you could ever hope for. It’s the bourbon helping that wonderful concoction.
If you’re after some straight ol’ Bourbon, then let’s get on with it, shall we?!
There are several out there, with varying prices that will suit your budget, but if we step back and go with the best flavors for your buck…and not worry so much about the price tag itself, we can find a few good choices. My personal top five, in no particular order, would include Four Roses (small batch and single barrel are the better two personally), Woodford Reserve Four Wood Finish Master’s Collection, Black Maple Hill 16 Year Small batch (probably my favorite), Angel’s Envy Bourbon, and Breckenridge Colorado Bourbon. Out of these, we do carry, or at least have access to, Angel’s Envy, Four Roses (many of them), and the Breckenridge Colorado Bourbon as well. As you can tell from my top 5, I am not really a fan of Jim Beam or Wild Turkey. That’s not to say that they don’t make good bourbon, but personally, if I had no other options I would only go with Jim Beam Black or Wild Turkey 101 from the mainstream brands.
For those of you wondering what to try and test out your bourbon pallet, Maker’s 46 is a great option. A lot of vanilla and caramel tones play throughout the pallet to a smooth finish without any bitterness.
Another solid bourbon without a harsh bite would be Buffalo Trace Bourbon. It has a subtle vanilla flavor accompanied by toffee with a very smooth finish. It has one of the smoothest finishes in a bourbon that is available at such a great price point, in the $20-$30 range.
Angel’s Envy is a great starter bourbon and a treat for the more experienced bourbon drinkers. The distiller that is making it actually used to make Woodford Reserve and also Old Forester (which if I would expand to show you my top ten, you would find more of those on my list).
Angel’s Envy is unlike any other bourbon I’ve had, and probably will ever have. Let me explain why…it starts its process as a traditional bourbon, oak casks maturation and all that jazz, but it steals a play from the Scotch playbook, and is finished in a port cask for 6-9 months, giving it a hint of a rich wine flavor. This opens up the flavor profile wonderfully to newcomers to bourbon, as well as giving the seasoned bourbon drinker a wonderful change of pace.
Four Roses Single Barrel is a very under-appreciated bourbon because of its delicate finish. It is a smooth bourbon with very subtle smokiness, but a pretty strong woody characteristic. It has a very mellow and delicate way of opening up the full flavor that it contains. Nothing overwhelms you when it hits your tongue and the finish, like I said, is incredibly delicate and freakishly long; just a very smooth bourbon that goes down WAAAYYY too easy.
Well, there you have it, my take on bourbon, and why it’s a touch classier that just your average American or Irish whiskey, or Canadian or Scotch whisky.