If I had to guess, you’re here because you already love bourbon and want to consume as much information about it as possible, or you are new to or curious about bourbon and want to learn more. Maybe both.
For those already in the know, you may be a little bored with the post. For the new and curious, this one’s for you. And, what bourbon blog wouldn’t have some of the basics on what defines bourbon and how it might differ from other whiskies.
Most sources say that bourbon was first created in the early 1820s, at least the term bourbon first started showing up around that time. By the 1870s the term was fairly common in Kentucky. I’ve read at least one historian who claims that bourbon can be traced back to 1620 by George Thorpe. My guess is that his was more of a precursor to what came later. You may have heard the saying all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Let’s break that statement down into several parts and start from the broadest definition and work our way down to bourbon.
The Code of Federal Regulations, specifically 27 CFR 5.22, define the standards of identity for several classes of distilled spirits. There are at least 12 classes of distilled spirits defined such as neutral spirits or alcohol (class 1), whisky (class 2), gin (class 3), brandy (class 4), and so on. Within the whisky class, several more specific terms are defined such as bourbon whisky, rye whisky, corn whisky. You can quickly fall down a rabbit hole looking through the code.
Whiskey is a generic term that refers to a distilled spirit. To qualify as a whiskey a spirit must meet the following four qualifications:
You might be wondering at this point why some labels may say whisky” and others say whiskey -— with or without the e. The most common explanation regarding the spelling says that if the country producing the product has an e in the name, then the product will also have an e, so products from the United States and Ireland will be whiskey while those from Scotland and Canada will be whisky. Of course, there are always exceptions such as Old Forester and Maker’s Mark, which both use the spelling whisky, which they explain as homage to their founder’s roots.
- It is made from a fermented mash of 100 percent grain
- It is distilled at less than 190 proof
- It is stored in oak containers
- It is bottled at not less than 80 proof (40 percent ABV)
We should take a quick “science moment” to look at the process of distilling. At its simplest, the process involved converting starch (provided by the grain) into sugar which is carried out by the enzymes from malted barley, then converting that sugar into alcohol by adding yeast into the mix, and then adding heat to the alcohol to separate it from the water and other solids in the production process.
It is interesting to note on that third point that the CFR does not say that whiskey has to be in barrels or that the barrels have to be new or charred. New and charred are some of the more specific qualifications on bourbon.
When you travel farther down the code, 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) and 27 CFR 5.22(b)(2) specifically, you’ll find that Bourbon Whisky has to meet the following qualifications:
- It is produced in the United States
- It is made from at least 51 percent corn
- It is distilled at 160 proof or below
- It is put into a new, charred oak container
- It is put into the container at 125 proof or less
- It contains on added substances other than water
When you look at the requirements above, you see that bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn. That begs the question, what makes up the other 49 percent. One of the terms that you’ll come across if you spend any time learning about bourbon is mashbill, the distiller’s term for the grain recipe for the whiskey. While the CFR states that bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, it is very common for the percentage of corn to be in the 60 to 75 percent range. Malted barley is another common grain found in the mashbill and usually comes in at between five and 15 percent. Barley is used because it contains the enzymes needed to help convert the starches into sugars.
The interesting thing to note here is that nowhere in this part of the code does it specify that bourbon has any age requirements. However, there are some further specifications that do deal with age and if the label must state the age. Technically, you could take the distillate produced at less than 160 proof right off the still, put it into a new, charred oak box at 125 (or less) proof, then pour it into a bottle and call it bourbon. I’m fairly certain that I would not like that bourbon, but it could be called bourbon nonetheless. I wouldn’t like that bourbon because most of the color and flavor of bourbon comes from the time spent in the new, charred oak container (which with bourbon more often than not is a barrel). The more time in the barrel, the deeper the color and the more complex the flavors become. It’s not only the amount of time in the barrel, but where in the warehouse the barrel was stored (because warehouse locations can differ in temperature and humidity which affect how the whiskey interacts with the barrel), the barrel char level, and even if the barrel was toasted before being charred.
I mentioned that age is not a part of the definition of bourbon. There are however some qualifications to that statement. If you want to call the bourbon “Kentucky Bourbon” then that bourbon must be produced and then aged for at least one year in the state of Kentucky. If you want to call the bourbon “Straight Bourbon” then it must be aged for a minimum of two years AND if it is aged less than four years, the label must state how long it aged.
There are many great sources that can go into more details on the specifics of the laws that determine the identity of bourbon and the process in which it is made. I’m sure that I’ve gone on too long, but I’m also sure that there are a few that love the details. Who knows, it may help you in a trivia contest.
Having said all this, I’m sure that there are many that would rather just drink their bourbon. I think that’s a great idea.