Bourbon Whiskey 101: What is it?

Updated: 29/07/2021
9 mins read
Bourbon Whiskey 101: What is it?

You walk into a liquor store and see two bottles – one is bourbon and the other whiskey. If you can’t tell the difference between the two, you’ll most probably stand there for a moment, in utter confusion. We hope that you’ll have a clear understanding of precisely what bourbon is by the end of this article.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey native to America and got its name from the Bourbon Dynasty, a European royal house of French origin. The bourbon gets distilled from a mash bill whose primary ingredient is corn – at least 51%. It’s aged in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon must be made in the United States and shouldn’t contain any added flavoring, coloring, or additives. Even though it may be made anywhere in the United States, it’s mainly analogous to Kentucky in particular.

Is bourbon whiskey?

Despite its widespread acceptance, bourbon is still a mystery to many. For someone who doesn’t drink lots of brown liquor, it can be hard to tell if bourbon is whiskey. Both bourbon and whiskey are brown liquids that look almost the same. So, how does it differ from whiskey? Here are some unique bourbon characteristics that set it apart from other types of whiskey:

ballantines 17 year old whiskey bottles

1. Aging has to be done in new charred oak barrels

After all the mash bill criteria have been met, the other very important thing is the barrel aging process. By law, bourbon should be aged in new charred white oak barrels for at least two years. This is as opposed to other non- bourbon whiskeys, which may be aged in barrels that have already been used to age other spirits – not necessarily whiskey.

A couple of years back, during the bourbon boom, this stipulation caused difficulties for bourbon distillers. With the unforeseen rise in demand, the scarcity of barrels resulted in a significant shortage of bourbon.

2. ABV levels

Bourbon needs to hit a certain proof when in the barrel. What this translates in simple terms is that it has to achieve certain alcohol by volume content in the spirit. The proof is twice the alcohol content.

The mash bill has to be distilled at 160 proof or lower. This is equal to an alcohol by volume content of 80%. The distillate is then stored in barrels until it reaches 125 proof or less. That’s an ABV content of 62.5%.

Before the bourbon is bottled, it undergoes filtration, after which it’s diluted to 80 proof and not lower. That’s the equivalent of 40% alcohol by volume content.

3. Maturity time

While bourbon must be stored in new charred oak barrels, there’s no minimum aging requirement. As long as the spirit has been barreled correctly, it can go any amount of time – there’s no condition for how long or less. Some distilleries even sell three-month-old bourbon. Don’t get this wrong – you can’t leave it overnight and expect it to have matured in a couple of hours. Flavorful bourbon needs a minimum aging period of two years. On the other hand, bourbon aged for very long tends to acquire a sour and bitter flavor that some consumers enjoy.

However, there are two exceptions to this, i.e. straight bourbon whiskey has to be aged for at least 2years while bottled-in-bond has to be aged for at least 4years before being bottled. After 6years, the oak gets more controlling and changes the bourbon’s tasting notes with every passing year.

4. Flavorful taste

Bourbon’s flavorful taste makes it a premium drink that is worth looking into. There are so many flavors out there, depending on the ingredients and aging process, that one might not know where to start. The flavor is characterized by vanilla, oak, caramel, and spice.

Another criterion for bourbon is that it shouldn’t contain any additives or colorings. This, however, doesn’t limit its diverse flavor profile. If any coloring, flavoring, or other spirit is added, the bourbon has to be labeled as “blended,” but still, at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon.

It’s okay if you enjoy sweetening your bourbon. That is where cocktails come in. There are numerous remarkable cocktail recipes you can experiment with that take advantage of bourbon’s unique flavor profile.

woodford reserve bourbon on glass

What is bourbon made from?

All types of whiskey are obtained from spirit from fermented grains which are then aged in barrels for different amounts of time. The type and quantity of grains used determine the variety of whiskey formed. For a whiskey to be considered a bourbon, it needs to contain at least 51% corn, among other types of grains. Corn is what gives bourbon its distinctive sweet and spicy flavor.

Here’s bourbon’s production process:

Step 1: The grains are crushed into powder form and then mixed with water.

Step 2: Mash from previous is added for consistency purposes. The resulting liquid is called sour mash.

Step 3: Yeast is added to aid with fermentation.

Step 4: Distillation takes place, resulting in a clear spirit called “white dog.” It has about 65-80% alcohol content.

Step 5: The spirit is placed in new charred barrels made using American white oak for maturing. Aging takes a minimum of two years, after which straight bourbon is made (cheaper bourbons are usually aged more hastily). The spirit turns color and acquires new flavor within this time thanks to the caramelized sugars and vanillin in the charred oak. These changes may also be attributed to evaporation and oxidation.

The longer the bourbon is left to mature, the more color and flavor it gains. Keep in mind that over-aging can sometimes affect the bourbon, causing it to taste woody, bitter, and unbalanced. The bitter taste comes from tannins that leach out of the oak barrels.

Step 6: The bourbon is then removed from the barrels, filtered, and diluted with water. It is bottled at not less than 80 US proof which is equal to 40% abv. The bourbon may be sold at a higher or lower proof, but if sold at less than 80 proof, it should be labeled as “diluted bourbon.”

Step 7: The liquor is then bottled and labeled.

Step 8: The final product is distributed, ready for sale to consumers.

All bourbons have the same predominant ingredients, but their quantity varies, resulting in different classifications as listed below. Depending on how much of the remaining mash is wheat or rye, you can end up with either wheated bourbon or rye bourbon. The latter has a spicy taste, while the former has a soft, mellow taste. The different types of bourbon that exist are:

  1. Traditional Bourbon - This type of bourbon is made with 70% corn, 15% rye and, and 15% barley. The rye and barley have to be in equal amounts.
  2. Spicy High Rye - This particular type of bourbon has a high rye content (but not higher than corn).
  3. High Wheat - This liquor has a higher wheat content which gives it a smoother taste. Apart from wheat, the other ingredients are corn and barley.
yellowstone bourbon on glass with ice

What makes bourbon distinct?

Bourbon features strong notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel that it acquires during maturation in the barrel. These unique flavors are what give bourbon a grand slam compared to other types of whiskey. Bourbon has a distinct taste, different from other styles of whiskey such as Scotch, Irish whiskey, and Tennessee Whiskey. Remember that these have added additives, coloring, or flavorings.

Bourbon is one of those drinks that people love to drink neat and in cocktails – its versatility is out of this world. The strongest influences in bourbon taste during production are the grain (mostly corn), the yeast strains, the new white oak barrels, and their storage.

The smooth yet complex bourbon flavor makes it such an approachable drink that connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike can enjoy. Bourbon is smoother and more approachable than other whiskeys. Everyone loves the depth of flavor.

The origins of bourbon

Most bourbon brands are produced in Kentucky, thanks to the strong historical association. The history of bourbon is a little stretchy as there are so many important dates. The first commercial distillery was established in Kentucky in 1783. During this time, many Irish, German, and Scottish settlers migrated into the area that would become Kentucky in 1792.

In 1823, Dr. James C. Crow developed what is known as sour mash at the Pepper Distillery. The name bourbon was given to the spirit in 1840 after Jacob Spear labeled his product “Bourbon Whiskey.” Before that, bourbon was often labeled “Bourbon County Whiskey” or “Old Bourbon County Whiskey.”

In 1964 the United States Congress passed a resolution declaring bourbon as the country’s distinct product. It also established the regulations that had to be met for a spirit to be labeled a bourbon.

Bar banner

Frequently Asked Questions

How is bourbon different from whiskey?

You’ve probably heard the phrase that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. This can be a little confusing, especially if you’re not much of a whiskey drinker. Overall, whiskey is made from a mixture of fermented grains that are distilled then aged in barrels. A set of strict rules define and govern its production. For example, to be classified as bourbon, a whiskey needs to be distilled from a mixture of grains that contains at least 51% corn.

Bourbon must also be stored in new charred oak barrels bottles at no more than 40% ABV. On the contrary, whiskey must be stored on oak barrels; these do not need to be new or charred.

Is bourbon better than whiskey?

Bourbon tends to be sweeter than whiskey, which tends to have a more intense smokiness. Apart from having a sweet flavor, bourbon also tends to be heavier in texture and gives notes of toffee, cinnamon, and vanilla. The high percentage of corn and the vanillin compounds extracted from the charred oak during maturing tend to give it notes of caramel, vanilla, dried fruit, and spice.

What makes bourbon expensive?

So much goes into producing and pricing a typical bottle of bourbon. The raw materials (grains) used to produce bourbon cost money, and so does the yeast, which costs a lot to keep alive and maintain its purity. A high cost of labor also goes to mashing, fermenting, and distilling the grains. All this has to be taken into consideration.

Let’s not forget how long it takes for the bourbon to mature. Every minute the bourbon ages, some liquor disappears through evaporation. By the time the bourbon matures, there’s a loss of about 14% of the barrel’s original contents.

The taxes, marketing costs, and retail markup also significantly affect the cost of a bottle of bourbon.

Should I refrigerate bourbon?

You shouldn’t refrigerate bourbon because it won’t go bad if left outside. If you wish to preserve your bourbon for longer, just keep it in a relatively cool place. Refrigeration does nothing to improve the taste but can pull the flavors from your bourbon. Storing your bourbon in high temperatures causes it to evaporate faster. It oxidizes and eventually changes its flavor.

Bourbon is best enjoyed at room temperature and neat—however, your bottle, your rules. So if you want, you can enjoy your bourbon over ice.

Does bourbon have to come from Kentucky?

No. The fact that bourbon is nearly synonymous with Kentucky, it can still be legally made anywhere in the United States.

Most of the bourbon available in different parts of the world originates from Kentucky- more than 95% (according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association). Even though the bourbon doesn’t necessarily have to be made there, the spirit must be distilled and aged in Kentucky for it to be considered a Kentucky bourbon. This is the same way that champagne is synonymous with the Champagne region in France.

Can bourbon come from outside of America?

Bourbon is America’s Native Spirit, so it has to be made in the United States. There are laws in place that govern the identity of bourbon, which state that the word bourbon shouldn’t be used on any whiskey product that is not produced in the United States.

If bourbon is made outside the US, no matter how authentic it is, it shouldn’t be labeled as bourbon. The combination of the barrels and the limestone-fed springs that give the water make it difficult to produce 100% authentic bourbon elsewhere.

Does bourbon work well as a cocktail mixer?

Bourbon is a complex spirit that tastes great when taken straight up but tastes even better in cocktails. One of the most classic mixers used is coke. This goes ahead to show you how rewarding simple cocktails can be. Some mixologists like to add more ingredients to bring out further the spicy and smoky character of the bourbon.

There are so many bourbon cocktail recipes that have stood the test of time. This, however, shouldn’t stop you from experimenting with different recipes. You’d be surprised to know that it mixes well with everything from ginger ale to coffee.


It’s right to refer to all bourbons as whiskey but not all whiskeys as bourbon – this can be very confusing to many people. We covered all aspects that a beginner needs to know about bourbon and hope that’ll help answer any questions that you have. Next time you order a glass of bourbon, know that what’ll be brought isn’t just any regular whiskey but a specific kind of whiskey.

Ashleigh Cain

Ashleigh is a key part of the editorial team at Whiskey Rocks. You'll often find her either writing educational articles or reviewing the latest artisan whiskeys. Her favorite drink? Ashleigh loves smokey scotches like Laphroaig, but you'll also often find her with an old fashioned in hand.

Pepperjam Verification

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram