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Bourbon Basics

Understanding American Bourbon


Sazerac Cocktail

Sazerac Cocktail

Photo Credit: © Colleen Graham licensed to About.com
Updated September 26, 2011

Bourbon is America's native whiskey. While Kentucky is home to the vast majority of America's bourbon production, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Here is a quick guide to understanding bourbon.


By law, bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new American oak barrels. These barrels must be charred on the inside (most distilleries use a number 4 "alligator" char on their barrels). Bourbon aged at least two years may use "straight bourbon" on the label as long as the age of the whiskey is specified. Bourbon aged at least four years does not need to list an age statement on "straight bourbon". If you see a bottle labeled "straight bourbon" without an age indication, it is at least four years old.


Bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51% corn. In reality, most bourbons are made with 70%+ corn content, with the rest of the grains in the mashbill being barley, wheat or rye. Rye provides a spicy note to bourbon where wheat provides a softer, sweeter note.

Distillation and Proof:

Bourbon cannot be distilled initially to more than 160 proof (80% abv). It must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.6% abv), so if the distillate is higher than that, it must be diluted with water prior to being put in barrel. At bottling, bourbon may not be bottled at lower than 80 proof (40% abv). Traditionally, bourbon is double distilled to ensure smoothness and quality.

Flavor Profile:

By law, no flavorings or color additives may be added to bourbon. Bourbon's general flavor profile can be characterized as having big vanilla, oak and caramel notes. Bourbons containing rye in the mashbill such as Bulleit bourbon will have a spicy note. Bourbons containing wheat in the mashbill like Makers Mark are softer, sweeter and have a lighter mouthfeel.

Popular Brands of Bourbon:

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