How To's & Guides

Bourbon vs Whiskey: What Makes it Bourbon, Anyway?

Any regular readers know that, besides being a Guinness lover, my liquor of choice is almost always whiskey. And although I love a great number of whiskeys out there, including Canadian and Irish, my true favorites are the bourbons. (Yes Maker's Mark, you'll always hold a spot in my heart, and in my Manhattan, perfect, on the rocks).

The question is though, what makes a straight bourbon whiskey? How is bourbon different from other whiskeys? Dave shot me a link to William Litton's article today, which did a rather good job of explaining key factors.

As Mr. Litton explains, bourbon is a corn whiskey that is aged in charred white oak barrels. This aging process, in these specific barrels, is what gives bourbon its distinctive coloring and tasty notes of honey, spice and floral, earthy complexity. There is however, a bit more to it than that.

In order to be labeled as an official straight bourbon whiskey, according to US federal law (it's that big) whiskey needs to meet all of the following requirements:

  • It must be distilled within the United States
  • It must be made of grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • It cannot be altered in any artificial way; no coloring, flavoring or special filtering allowed
  • It must be aged for at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels
  • It must be distilled to no higher than 165 proof, and introduced into the barrel at no higher than 125 proof

Bourbon brands' tastes are as varied as their names, from sweet to fiery and everything in between. My favorite, Maker's Mark, tends to be on the sweeter side but still with enough fire to know you're drinking bourbon. Basil Hayden’s is a bourbon that I liken more to candy than any other. If you're looking for pure heat and the classic whiskey-face, try Knob Creek—it may be the tastiest fire water you've ever thrown back.

Looking for a classic bourbon cocktail recipe? The Manhattan or Old Fashioned always do me well, but here's something we haven't posted yet... the Kentucky B & B.

Kentucky B & B
2 oz bourbon
½ oz Benedictine

Pour bourbon and Benedictine into a snifter and stir. Drink and repeat.

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