Bourbon 101: What is Bourbon?
the basics of bourbon

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


When I first started started drinking whiskey it was Jameson or bust.  For the first few weeks when I was trying to be a ‘whiskey guy’ I’d go to the nearest liquor store and buy whatever was on sale. Three weeks in a row it was Jameson and for a really long time I didn’t see the need to change. While Jameson will always have a special place in my heart, it’s no longer the only thing I drink.

Since my Jameson days, I’ve spent a lot of time (more than I’d like to admit), trying different types of whiskey. To be honest, when I first started drinking whiskey I didn’t really know what the different types were or what made them different. Over the past year, I’ve drank more and more rye and bourbon and found that I really enjoy both.

I learned so much watching Neat: The Story of Bourbon and have made it a goal over this past year to learn more about what I’m drinking, what I like, and the story behind it.  I truly believe that in order to truly appreciate something you need to learn what it is and where it came from.  Which begs the question,

What Is bourbon?

For a spirit to be considered Bourbon it must adhere to six standard rules:

  1. It must be made in the U.S.
  2. It must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.
  3. It must be at least 51 percent corn.
  4. It must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume).
  5. It must enter into a barrel at below 125 proof.
  6. There can be no artificial coloring or flavor.

Distilling was most likely brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including English, Irish, Welsh, German, and French) who began to farm the area in earnest. The origin of bourbon as a distinct form of whiskey is not well documented. There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others.

Related: The Best Bourbons under $50

There likely was no single “inventor” of bourbon, which developed into its present form in the late 19th century. Essentially, any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey and charring the barrels for better flavor had been known in Europe for centuries.

*DISCLAIMER* – These stories you are about to learn cannot be confirmed and none of them truly carry more weight over each other. This is one of the important parts of the folklore of how bourbon came to be, and, overall, just is fun to discuss.

The Legend of Bourbon

The invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller, who is said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste.

Legend has it, that he (and eventually other distillers) were trying to ship their Kentucky “moonshine” to New Orleans down the Mississippi river and the best way was to use old fish barrels. In order to remove the pungent fish smell and flavor, he decided to char the inside of the barrels. As the spirit travelled over time, it arrived at its destination with a darker color and flavor from the barrels.

Others have said that French immigrants that came from regions that had been aging Cognac were trying to convince the Kentucky distillers of the mid-19th century to use the same practices to get their whiskey to the entertainment district of New Orleans that was Bourbon Street. It was originally referred to when ordered as “that Bourbon Street Whiskey”, and eventually was just called “that Bourbon Whiskey.”

Related: 11 Health Benefits of Whiskey

Another proposed origin of the name is the association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon, consisting of the original Bourbon County in Virginia organized in 1785. This region included much of today’s Eastern Kentucky, including 34 of the modern counties.  It included the current Bourbon County in Kentucky, which became a county when Kentucky separated from Virginia as a new state in 1792.

The Bottled-In-Bond Act

One purpose of the Bottled-in-Bond Act was to create a standard of quality for Bourbon whiskey. Prior to the Act’s passage, much of the whiskey sold as straight whiskey was anything but. So much of it was adulterated out of greed – flavored and colored with iodine, tobacco, and other substances – that some perceived a need for verifiable quality assurance.

The practice was also connected to tax law, which provided the primary incentive for distilleries to participate. Distilleries were allowed to delay payment of the excise tax on the stored whiskey until the aging of the whiskey was completed, and the supervision of the warehouse ensured proper accounting and the eventual collection of the tax. This combination of advantages led a group of whiskey distillers led by Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. (creator of Old Taylor bourbon) to join with then Secretary of the Treasury John G. Carlisle to fight for the Bottled-in-Bond Act. To ensure compliance, Treasury agents were assigned to control access to so-called bonded warehouses at the distilleries.

Bottled-In-Bond Requirements

  1. The spirit must be the product of one distillation season
  2. Must be made by one distiller at one distillery.
  3. It must be bottled and stored in federally bonded warehouses under the U.S. government supervision for no less than 4 years.
  4. The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery by DSP number where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled.


General Bourbon / Whiskey Terms

Barrel proof:
Whiskey bottled at the desired proof while aging in the barrel. No water is added before bottling, so these Bourbons are higher proof than others.

Single barrel whiskey:
Whiskey drawn from one barrel that has not been mingled with any other whiskeys. 

Small batch whiskey:
A product of mingling select barrels of whiskey that have matured into a specific style,

The grain recipe used to make whiskey.

Wheated bourbon:
Bourbon made from a mashbill that contains wheat instead of rye grain.

Corn whiskey:
A whiskey made from a mashbill containining a minimum of 80% corn and, if it is aged at all, must be aged in used or uncharred oak barrels.

Rye whiskey (straight):
A whiskey made from a mash containing at least 51% rye, distilled out at a maximum 160 proof, aged at no more than 125 proof for a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels.

If the whiskey is aged for less than four years, its age must be stated on the bottle. No coloring or flavoring may be added to any straight whiskey,

Sour Mash:
Sour mash is a process used in the distilling industry that uses material from an older batch of mash to start the fermentation of a new batch, analogous to the making of sourdough bread with a starter. The term can also be used as the name of the type of mash used in that process, and a Bourbon made using this process can be referred to as a sour mash Bourbon. “Sour mash” does not refer to the flavor of the Bourbon.

Tennessee Whiskey and the Lincoln County Process

The Lincoln County Process is a step used in producing almost all Tennessee whiskeys. The whiskey is filtered through, or steeped in, charcoal chips before going into the casks for aging. The process is named for Lincoln County, Tennessee, which was the location of Jack Daniel’s distillery at the time of its establishment, but is no longer used in that county.

The term “Tennessee whiskey” does not actually have a legal definition in the U.S. Federal regulations that define the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits.[9] The only legal definition of Tennessee whiskey in U.S. federally recognized legislation is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which states only that Tennessee whiskey is “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee”. This definition is also recognized in the law of Canada, which states that Tennessee whiskey must be “a straight Bourbon Whiskey produced in the State of Tennessee”. None of these regulations requires the use of the Lincoln County filtering process (or any other filtering process).

Related: The Bourbon Bucket List

On May 13, 2013, the governor of Tennessee signed House Bill 1084, requiring maple charcoal filtering to be used for products produced in the state labeling themselves as “Tennessee whiskey” (with a particular exception tailored to exempt Benjamin Prichard’s) and including the existing requirements for bourbon. As federal law requires statements of origin on labels to be accurate, the Tennessee law effectively gives a firm definition to Tennessee whiskey.

Standard Whiskey Grain Tasting Notes

Malted Barley: Malted barley produces nutty, smoky, some chocolate or cocoa flavors and a flavor often described as cereal or possibly toast.

Rye: Rye gives spicy flavors of black and green pepper, anise, mint and, of course, rye bread. Rye imparts a dryness in the mouthfeel that’s sometimes referred to as leathery. Rye can enhance clove and nutmeg flavors from the barrel. If it’s poorly distilled, rye can introduce heavy menthol or camphor flavors into whiskey.

Wheat: Wheat doesn’t provide a substantial set of flavors on its own but does provide a very light bready-ness, some honey and touches of mint. It can provide a gentleness to whiskey and showcases flavors from the other grains or the barrel.

Corn: There’s a lot of confusion about corn in whiskey and it’s often mis-credited for the sweetness, vanilla and maple syrup notes in bourbon. No grain actually provides sugar content in whiskey – sugar doesn’t pass through distillation – but because YD#2 corn isn’t a strong source of flavors in and of itself, the oak sugars and vanillinas from that new, charred oak barrel shine through.

Stay Gold and Cheers!


4 responses to “Bourbon 101: The Basics of Bourbon

  1. Wow, I never knew before that bourbon and whiskey are intimately related to each other. I’ve been getting fond of drinking different kinds of alcohol as of late because of how interestingly subtle their flavors are. Perhaps I should invite my friends to go on a bourbon tour with me once it’s safer to go outside.

      1. Hey Todd! My wife & I did the Bourbon Trail in 2019 and we thought four days was enough time, but it wasn’t even close. We plan on spending a week the next time we go in order to see the many distilleries we missed. They all have a story to tell. Enjoy the experience, young man! It’s like no other.

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