All About Bourbon

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn.  While it may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with Kentucky, but we'll talk more about that later.  


Bourbon or Whiskey?

All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon - make sense?  Let us explain... 

Whiskey is made from fermented grain mash. Different grains are used for different varieties, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn.  Whisky is aged in wooden casks, made generally of white oak.

In the United States corn whiskey need not be aged.  To be considered Bourbon, the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits stated that the Bourbon Whiskey must measure up to several standards including:

  • The mixture must include at least 51 per cent of corn
  • It should be 80 proof
  • It must be left to ferment in charred and new oak barrels and should not be put in the barrel with more than 62.5% alcohol on the basis of volume.
  •  It must be made in America 


How do they make it?

The typical grain mixture for bourbon, known as the mash bill, is 70% corn — with the remainder being wheat and/or rye, and malted barley. The use of a mash bill that contains a relatively large percentage of wheat produces what is known as a wheated bourbon. The grain is ground and mixed with water. Usually, though not always, mash from a previous distillation is added to ensure a consistent pH across batches — and a mash produced in that manner is referred to as a sour mash. Finally, yeast is added and the mash is fermented. The fermented mash, which is referred to as the wash, is thendistilledto (typically) between 65% and 80% alcohol. Distillation was historically performed using an alembic or pot still, although in modern production, the use of a continuous still is much more common.

The resulting clear spirit is placed in charred oak barrels for aging, during which it gains color and flavor from the wood. Changes to the spirit also occur due to evaporation and chemical processes such as oxidation. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they age. Maturity, not a particular age, is the goal. Bourbon can age too long and become woody and unbalanced.

After aging, bourbon is withdrawn from the barrel, usually diluted with water and bottled to at least 80 US proof (40% abv). Most bourbon whiskey is sold at 80 US proof. Other common proofs are 86, 90, 94, 100 and 107, and whiskeys of up to 151 proof have been sold. Some higher proof bottlings are marketed as "barrel proof", meaning that they have not been diluted or have been relatively lightly diluted after removal from the barrels.

Bourbon whiskey may be sold at less than 80 proof but must be labeled as "diluted bourbon". 


Well then, what is Tennessee Whiskey?

Whiskey sold as Tennessee whiskey is also defined as Bourbon under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), however, most Tennessee whiskeys do not label their product as Bourbon and insist that it is a different type of whiskey when marketing their product.  Some Tennessee whiskies undergo a filtering stage in which the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before it is put into (charred new oak) barrels for aging. The companies that produce whiskey in this manner say that this step gives the whiskey a distinctive flavor which is fine by us! 


Whiskey or Whisky??

Please note, you'll sometimes see whisky spelled without an (e) which is the Canadian and Scottish way, while whiskey with an (e) is the American and Irish way.  Don't think for one minute that we women can't spell!

Canadian whisky is a type of whisky produced in Canada. Most Canadian whiskies are blended multi-grain liquors containing a large percentage of corn spirits, and tend to be lighter and smoother than other whisky styles.

According to the laws of Canada, a Canadian whisky must be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada. It may contain caramel (as may Scotch whisky) and other flavors, in addition to the distilled mash spirits.

Canada plays a very interesting role in the history of whisky given it's activity during the time of prohibition since they were able to sell their whisky during these dry times. 


Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky?

The Irish define their whiskey fairly simply and follow these rules:

  • Irish whiskey must be distilled and aged in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland.
  •  The contained spirits must be distilled to an alcohol by volume level of less than 94.8% from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used.
  • The product must be aged for at least three years in wooden casks.
  • If the spirits comprise a blend of two or more such distillates, the product is referred to as a "Blended" Irish whiskey.

There are several types of Scotch Whisky or "Scotch" as it's most often referred to in English-speaking countries.  

Under the legislation, “Scotch Whisky” means whisky that has been:

  • Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
  • Processed at that distillery into a mash
  • Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems
  • Fermented at that distillery only by the addition of yeast
  • Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8%
  • Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres for at least three years
  • Retains the colour, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
  • Has no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel colouring
  • Has a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%