Bourbon 101

let’s begin

Ever wanted to know the ins and outs of Bourbon? Now you can with our handy guide!

What is Bourbon

Let’s start at the start. What is Bourbon? Bourbon is a type of whisky that is made exclusively in America, and if you’re a Bourbon purist, then only in Kentucky.

America, being the great melting pot that it is, had a lot of immigration from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700s. with them they brought their distilling skills. The thing about America though, was that it was abundant in corn, so the immigrants began using corn in their recipes, resulting in a sweet, spicy malt now known as Bourbon.

Now you might be wondering, but why is it called Bourbon? It tastes nothing like chocolate biscuits.

Well not only did Bourbon the whisky come first, but there is some debate as to where the name comes from. And none of the arguments are about King Louis XVI.

The first suggestion is that its named after Bourbon County in north Kentucky, where Bourbon has been made for centuries. There is evidence of this story dating as far back as the 1870s.

However, Michael Veach, who has literally written the book on the stuff, says its actually more likely that it came from two brothers. The Tarascon brothers encouraged using charred barrels to make the whisky taste more like cognac or brandy so it could be sold in New Orleans. One of the most popular streets in New Orleans, Bourbon Street, became the place to get this type of whisky, and as such, the name was born.


Like most whisky across the globe, Bourbon is regulated. This means there is a standard that has to be met in order for it to be called Bourbon. In a nutshell, this includes:

  • It must be made in the US
  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels
  • The mash bill must be at least 51% corn
  • Distilled to 160 proof but barrelled at under 125 proof
  • There can be no artificial colours or flavourings

So if you want to make Bourbon, stick to these rules and whatever comes out will at least be able to be called Bourbon.

Flavour Profiles

There aren’t really “flavour profiles” in Bourbon like there is in Scotch but there are flavours that Bourbon has and that make it a good Bourbon.

There are three places that Bourbon gets its flavour from; the oak, the char and the corn.

The American oak wood used in casks to mature Bourbon imparts a sweet vanilla and coconut flavour as well as  hints of cinnamon spice.

The char of the barrel, which can vary on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is the least amount of char and 5 is the most. This is all down to the timing of how long the barrel is fired for. At level 1, this is 15 seconds, level 2, 30 seconds, level 3, 35 and level 4, 55. The final level is called Alligator Char and this is when the barrel is fired for as long as it takes to create an alligator skin effect on the inside.

The cracks created from the burning allow more interaction between the wood and the whisky because the surface level is increased.

The last flavour ingredient is the corn. This is not used in the production of many other whiskies and is one of the biggest things that makes Bourbon different to whiskies like Scotch or Irish. The corn gives it a nice soft, sweet flavour with hints of fruit.

Key terms

Mash Bill

This is the recipe for the final Bourbon. It refers to the make up of each type of grain used to create the whisky.

Wheated Mash Bill

This is when there is a high % of wheat in the mash bill. Wheat imparts of a soft, mellow, slightly aromatic flavour.

High corn

This is when the mash bill is high in corn grains. All Bourbon will have a corn % of 51 and anything over 80% is known as Corn Whisky.

High rye

Similar to above, this indicates that there is a high level of rye grains in the mash bill. This will usually be between 20-35%. If rye is the leading grain it becomes Rye Whisky.

Tags: BourbonBourbon 101Kentucky
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My name is Greg, and I’m a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. My mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about whisky, whiskey, gin, beer and fine dining through my writing, my brand building and my whisky tastings.

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