Bourbon Basics – From Barrel to Bottle

by
September 1, 2017

The temperature is starting to drop, leaves have began falling, and the first day of school is just around the corner. Though there are still a few weeks left of summer, September 1st unofficially marks the beginning of fall in the whiskey world. Special annual releases like the Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, Diageo’s Special Releases, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, and Parker’s Heritage Collection—among many others—begin hitting the shelves. For us whiskey lovers, this time of year is like our birthdays times a thousand.

On top of all that, September is officially known as National Bourbon Heritage Month. Officially recognized by Congress in 2007, though never officially designated to be repeated, we continue to mark the occasion on an annual basis. With that in mind, we’d like to go over a few basic (and not so basic) facts about the whiskey category.

BOURBON BASICS

All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. The whiskey tree includes types such as Scotch single malt, rye, Canadian, Irish single pot still, and many others. Bourbon is just one of the branches.

Bourbon Basics: Barrels and American Flag at Nelson’s Green Brier DistilleryBarrels and American Flag at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery / Photo Credit: Jake Emen

Bourbon can only be made in the United States. And, despite what you may believe, it can be made in any of the 50 states in the union. Currently, you can find a bourbon made in a majority of the states.

MASHBILL—MOSTLY CORN

The mash bill refers to the grain makeup in a whiskey. Corn must comprise at least 51% of the mash bill for bourbon. You can actually use 100% corn to make a bourbon. Example: Hudson Baby Bourbon. The other grains in the mash are referred to as “flavoring grains”. Wheat or rye are typically used—usually not both, though it isn’t unheard of (see Four Grain Bourbons). And a small portion, typically 5%, is made up of malted barley. Not to get too technical, malted barley aids in the fermentation process.

Wheated bourbons

Bourbons using wheat (18% or more) include the following:

Maker’s Mark
W.L. Weller
Pappy Van Winkle

High-rye bourbons

Bourbons which rye (18% or more), include the following:

Old Forester
Four Roses
Basil Hayden’s

Traditional bourbon recipes

Using 70-80% corn, plus wheat or rye and some barley. Include pretty much every other bourbon. Here are a few you may have heard.

Jim Beam
Buffalo Trace
Elijah Craig

DISTILLATION

Bourbon is most often first distilled in a column-still and then distilled in a doubler or thumper, essentially an attached continuous pot-still. Traditional pot stills can be, and are used. Woodford Reserve uses a pot still for part of its makeup.

Bourbon Basics: Pot stills at Woodford ReservePot stills at Woodford Reserve / Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve

AGING REQUIREMENTS

Bourbon must be aged, but there is no requirement for how long (or little) it has to age in barrels. Two exceptions to this. One, if it is a STRAIGHT bourbon it must be aged for at least TWO YEARS.

Second, if it is BOTTLED-IN-BOND, it must be aged for at least four years. It must also be distilled at one distillery, in one season, and be bottled at 50% ABV.

It must also be aged in NEW, CHARRED oak containers. There isn’t a specification on using AMERICAN OAK, but it is almost always used. Also, size of the barrel isn’t dictated. Traditional bourbon barrels are 53-gallons (200L).

PROOF

Though the method and type of still isn’t dictated, bourbon cannot be distilled over 80% alcohol-by-volume (ABV). For some types of whiskey, you are allowed to distill up to 95% ABV. Not bourbon. The higher proof you distill at, the less flavor you retain.

Bourbon Basics: Blanton's BourbonBlanton’s Bourbon / Photo Credit: Jason Rojas

Additionally, bourbon cannot go into a barrel at above 62.5% ABV. It should be noted that, depending on where and how long a bourbon ages, the proof once IN the barrel can exceed that. See any George T. Stagg or Booker’s Bourbon. All regularly over 125 proof at bottling.

It must be bottled at 40% ABV or higher.

TENNESSEE WHISKEY

It should be noted, in terms of production, Tennessee Whiskey is made exactly like bourbon with one notable exception. It is filtered through maple charcoal PRIOR to barreling. This process is known as the Lincoln County Process. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel simply prefer to label their whiskeys as Tennessee Whiskey instead of bourbon whiskey. But they could. And there would certainly be an uproar if they did.


Now, time to find your next favorite bourbon!

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