I would like to give a big shout out and thank you to fellow BON author, Jeffrey Haley. Jeff and I decided to do a collaborative post on this topic, but when he sent me a draft, his work was so impressive and thorough that I had very little to add. Thanks for essentially doing my job for me this week, Jeff. I look forward to your cocktail manifesto -SC
Autumn is in full swing across this great state; the leaves are starting to fall, the air is getting crisper by the day, and we're heading into the home stretch of a fantastic season of college football. This means one thing, friends: whisk(e)y weather is upon us. So, light the fireplace, pour yourself a dram (yes, I know the term is usually used for scotch), and sit back as Tastes of Texas warms you up with the basics of bourbon.
Bourbon. The classic American spirit. What used to conjure images of uneducated, backwoods yokels has risen dramatically in the world of whisk(e)y recently. One needs only to step into your local liquor store to see just how popular this spirit has become. In fact, there are so many choices coming out of the state of Kentucky now that it, quite honestly, can be a bit overwhelming. I think it's safe to say that most of you like bourbon, but may not necessarily have a deep understanding of the spirit of this spirit. How is bourbon made? What variations are available? How does it differ from other whisk(e)ys? We hope that this crash course helps answer these questions and more, and after reading you'll be able to walk into the store and make your bourbon selection with confidence. Against that backdrop, let's dive right in.
What is bourbon?
Bourbon is a whiskey made primarily from corn. This is the major characteristic that sets it apart from other types of whisk(e)ys, such as Scotch and Irish whisky, which are made from barley, or rye whiskey, which is made primarily from rye. As we will describe further below, the grain used in the fermenting process is incredibly important.
In order to better understand differences between different bourbon brands, it is worth making a little effort in order to understand how whiskey is made. As a whiskey drinker, you don't need to know exactly how to make it. In fact, I strongly advise that you do not, as it is illegal, you can burn down your house, and poison your party guests. But, knowledge of the process helps the drinker better understand exactly what he is drinking. The process of making bourbon (and most types of whiskey) can, essentially, be broken into three steps.
In the first step, grain, water, and yeast are combined and allowed to ferment. This process is very similar to beer making. While corn beers are not very common, if you were to find one (or brew your own) it would resemble the fermentation brew used to make bourbon.
The critical requirement for bourbon is that during distillation, the resulting distillate collected be no more concentrated than 80 percent by volume (or 160 proof). If the bourbon is distilled to a higher concentration, it is no longer a whiskey, but is instead well on its way to becoming vodka or everclear.
If you want to get a sense of what a whiskey tastes like after distillation, but prior to aging, there are now products that you can buy. These are sometimes nicknamed "white whiskey." This type of product is a perfectly clear whiskey that has been diluted to a reasonable proof, but has not yet seen the inside of a barrel. It has a similar flavor to an aged whiskey. One example of such a product is Buffalo Trace White Dog, but there are other brands as well.
The distilled bourbon is diluted to less than 125 proof, and is placed in a barrel. In order to be considered straight bourbon, this aging process has to last at least two years. However, some bourbons are aged for much longer, such as the 12 year old Elijah Craig or the 10 year old Eagle Rare.
Bourbon quickly takes on color in the barrel. This is partly because it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. The new barrel leads bourbon to become rather dark in only a few years. By contrast, Scotch is generally aged in used barrels (often used barrels from American bourbon production). For this reason, a Scotch aged 12 years is often a much lighter color than a 3 year old bourbon.
After aging, bourbon is typically diluted and bottled. 80 proof is a typical dilution, but many distillers produce bourbon at a much higher proof which gives the whiskey a sharp or "hot" taste. For example, my bottle of Elijah Craig is 94 proof. Prior to bottling, most bourbons also undergo a process known as chill filtration. Without this process, the bourbon would become cloudy when diluted.
As a quick aside, whiskey that is not chill filtered can be a fantastic change of pace. For example, Ardberg 10 year old scotch is generally not chill filtered, leaving it with a much different texture from what you typically associate with whisk(e)y. (If you are a fan of the peat-bomb approach to Scotch, such as Laphroaig or Lagavulin, there is a good chance that you would enjoy Ardberg). Non-chill filtered whiskeys are generally bottled at a higher proof, and occasionally at barrel strength; the drinker can then dilute the whisk(e)y to suit his taste. One of our local whiskey merchants in Northern Kentucky is a major advocate for whiskey that has not been chill filtered, and he has largely convinced me of the virtues. You can read his view on this subject here.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about bourbon is the grain composition used to produce the whiskey. In the case of bourbon, the grains commonly used are corn, rye, malted barley, and wheat. The actual ratios of these components are generally not disclosed, but you can get a general sense of the grains that are used by simply tasting the whiskey. It is usually no secret what grains are used to make a particular whiskey, it is only the quantities that are kept secret.
As stated above, corn is always the primary grain used to make bourbon. A typical recipe might be around 70% corn. After that, rye is commonly the next most important ingredient. You can generally tell how strong the rye component is, as it gives the bourbon a spicy, sharp taste. As a local whiskey seller explained to me, if you think of the difference in flavor between corn bread and rye bread, it gives you a sense of how these components affect the flavor of the whiskey.
A bourbon that uses the rye flavor well is the standard Buffalo Trace bourbon. The Elijah Craig we mentioned also has a pretty hefty rye flavor. Whiskey is all about personal preference, and we're big fans of the rye-heavy style -- some of our favorite whiskeys are straight rye whiskeys.
Other grains can be used to produce different effects. Wheated bourbons are one example. Wheated bourbons generally feature wheat prominently in the recipe. The most famous wheated bourbon is Makers Mark, which contains no rye, but instead a fair amount of wheat in the recipe. This gives it an entirely different flavor, without the sharpness of the rye. Old Fitzgerald, the drink that Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson ordered in the opening scene of The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved is also a wheated bourbon, as are the famous and rare Van Winkle bourbons.
As alluded to above, bourbon, and all whisk(e)y really, is all about your personal preference. The trick is to discover exactly what those preferences are - to find out what grain bill you find palatable. It can be incredibly frustrating to spend money on a bottle and come home to find it is too sharp or too sweet for your tastes. Now that y'all have an understanding of how bourbon is made, our advice is to research the grain bill of your favorite whiskey. Arming yourself with this knowledge will allow you to walk into the store and confidently tell the clerk what you prefer, which will, in turn, lead to better recommendations across the board.
Whether you're a beginner first looking to step into the world of good whiskey, or a hardened veteran who just enjoys reading literature on the topic we hope this guide has given y'all a good sense of the basics of bourbon and has improved your understanding of this great American spirit. We look forward to talking shop with all of you enthusiasts on a topic we are both incredibly passionate about.
-Jeff and Shane