Bourbon 101: How is Bourbon Made?

Never delay kissing a pretty girl or opening a bottle of whiskey.”
– Ernest Hemingway

It’s not a secret that bourbon has gained popularity over the past decade. You see more and more distilleries popping up and additional batches being put out by the more well known ones.  Now you have probably asked yourself the question ‘how is bourbon’ made before, and while you don’t need to know how bourbon is made to enjoy it- it sure doesn’t hurt!

So, how is bourbon made?

Unsurprisingly, bourbon is made following the same process as whiskey: Harvest, Fermentation, Distillation, and Aging, but with a few unique differences.

Step 1 – Harvest

Obviously, before any grains are fermented they need to be harvested and removed from their stalks and sheaths. (Now I’m just imagining people trying to distill whole ears of corn, what a disaster!) The grains that are usually harvested are corn, rye, wheat, and barley.

Step 2 – Fermentation

The grains are dried, then combined with water, and cooked to create a mash. As long as the mash is at least 51% corn, it’s bourbon! Many distilleries will add up to 81% corn, but the additional grains will adjust flavors.

  • Rye adds more spice.
  • Wheat adds sweetness and softness.
  • Barley adds a nutty quality. (Although barley is often added strictly for its natural fermentation enzymes. It’s the only grain cam ferment without added help.)

This first mash is left out to sour overnight.

A second mash is created and most of it is combined with the previous day’s sour mash to induce fermentation. Yeast is often also added to begin breaking down starches and sugars into alcohol. (Specific distilleries keep their own strains of yeast to guarantee consistent taste across all batches!)

Related: The Basics of Bourbon

Step 3 – Distillation

Distillation is a two-step process. The whole mash is run through step one and its product then runs through step 2.

Step 1. Column Still

Column stills remove the alcohol from everything else in the mash.

Step 2. Copper Pot Still

Copper doubler pots will cause interactions within the newly extracted alcohol that improve flavors. The final distillate that leaves these stills is actually clear and is called “white dog.”

Step 4 – Aging

The aging process is where color is added to the bourbon! (No artificial coloring or flavoring is allowed.) The new charred oak wood barrels infuse the whisky both with their color and their wood spice flavors. This where you get notes of oak, vanilla, toast, smoke, and sometimes even nuts.

Bourbon FAQ’s 

Now that we’ve answered the question how is bourbon made you may have a few other questions that need answering! The world of bourbon is wonderful and full of detail and nuance…but it doesn’t have to be a mystery!

How do I serve Bourbon?

Bourbon is usually served either neat or on the rocks. But there are several bourbon cocktails out there that play with bourbon’s different flavors. It’s a good idea to remember that Bourbon is especially good for fall!

It has a naturally honey or maple tone to it which pairs wonderfully with apples, pears, and cinnamon – all your favorite fall foods. Though not a bourbon, rye whisky is especially good for spicing up a holiday drink since it has a strong kick.

What does it mean to serve Bourbon neat or straight?

Neat and straight mean the same thing – no ice. These bourbons are typically served in a tumbler glass at room temperature. The alcohol will be much stronger when served neat or straight and they tend to have higher intensity.

You should note that in some bars “straight” or “straight-up” refers to white cocktails (think James Bond’s martini) that have been shaken or stirred with ice and then strained into a chilled glass.

If the alcohol has been diluted with ice, it’s considered “up.” If the bottle has been chilled but the alcohol hasn’t contacted water, it’s technically considered “neat.”

What does it mean to serve Bourbon on the rocks?

Bourbon on the rocks simply means it is served over ice. The number (and even size) of the ice cubes is totally up to you. You can have just one rock or several. Or you can have one very large rock that takes up the whole glass. (I’m not joking here.) In many fancier establishments, larger rocks are used because they melt and dilute the bourbon less quickly while keeping it cool for longer!

Why do people serve Bourbon on the rocks?

Water as a chemical has some pretty amazing properties. One of its most exciting for us bourbon drinkers is the fact that it binds to compounds in the alcohol and reduces the intensity.

As the alcohol is diluted, new and more subtle flavors are able to shine through in the glass. That’s why we say water “opens up” the drink. If you don’t want to actually chill your drink or dilute it too much, try just adding a few small drops of water into your glass using a straw. You’ll notice the difference! (And everyone at the bar will think you’re very cool.)

Does Bourbon need to come from Kentucky?

There is a somewhat erroneous belief out there that bourbon can only come from Kentucky. That is completely untrue. Not all bourbons must come from Kentucky, but about 95% do. However, “Kentucky Straight” is a label that does indicate the bourbon came from Kentucky.

You can’t label your bourbon “Kentucky Straight” if you made it in Detroit…But since most bourbons currently already do come from Kentucky, you’re really finding a novelty if you find one that doesn’t! (Kings County Peated Bourbon is an example. It is made in New York.)

Stay Gold & Drink up.


About Todd Smidt

Todd is a man of simple tastes: traveling, words, whiskey, & dad jokes. He enjoys first-rate banter, long walks along the coast, High West, and Vonnegut. He spends his free time traveling the world, drinking whiskey, and writing about it.

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