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Bourbon 101 – A Primer for Bourbon Novices

In Banter by Paul Needham2 Comments

If you’re new to the world of bourbon, this post is for you. This post is written with the novice-to-intermediate bourbon drinker in mind, so please read on for a primer. It is essentially a condensed and compiled list of information I was curious about at the start of my own bourbon journey. If you’re new to the Bourbon & Banter community, I would kindly suggest that you bookmark this site for no-nonsense reviews that anyone can understand! Please enjoy, and whether you’re new or a seasoned bourbon aficionado, let me know what I missed in the comments!

What's the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

This is the most common question that Bourbon & Banter gets when hosting bourbon tastings for people new to bourbon. While it’s true that many people will use the term interchangeably when conversing on the topic, saying that bourbon and whiskey are the same things is not technically accurate. Whiskey is an umbrella term for any spirit distilled from fermented grain. Rum, meanwhile, uses fermented and distilled sugarcane, while brandy uses fermented and then distilled fruit – usually grapes. In whiskey, the grains are generally barley, rye, corn, or wheat. Bourbon is a subset of whiskey.

Therefore, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

What is bourbon?

Above, we learned that Bourbon is a whiskey. Each style of whiskey is subject to local rules that govern how it must be made in Scotland, Japan, and Ireland if it wants to be sold and marketed in those countries. Perhaps no whiskey anywhere in the world, though, has more laws and rules surrounding it than Bourbon. Because of that, the following things must be true of any liquid that calls itself Bourbon.

  • Bourbon must be made in the United States
    A common myth is that Bourbon has to be made in Kentucky, but that’s not true. The laws only require that Bourbon be made in the USA. However, 95% of all Bourbon produced is made in Kentucky. According to a recent survey, 100% of Kentucky residents believe all the good Bourbon is distilled in Kentucky.

  • Bourbon’s mash bill (mixture of grains or grain recipe) must be at least 51% corn
    This rule grew out of the fact that Bourbon was born in Kentucky and farmers in Kentucky grew corn. As the government aimed to regulate Bourbon production to protect consumers, the industry standard became the norm.

  • Bourbon must be stored in new, charred oak containers
    Other styles of whiskey might use the same barrel 2-4 times. It is widespread for bourbon distilleries to reuse or resell their barrels for use in aging other whiskeys that are not bourbons.

  • Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof
    This rule was probably driven more by producers than by the government itself. Anything exceeding 95% alcohol will be odorless and tasteless, and bourbon distillers hoped that a characteristic flavor profile could be achieved by capping the maximum distillate proof at 160, or 80%.

  • Bourbon’s barrel entry proof can be no more than 125 proof
    Before Bourbon goes into the barrel, it has to be “proofed down” to no more than 125 proof by adding nothing more than water  to the Bourbon.

  • Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof
    Bourbon, along with other whiskey styles like Scotch and Irish whiskey, cannot be entered into a bottle at less than 80 proof. It should also be noted that for Bourbon, nothing other than water (or other Bourbon) can be added to the Bourbon when it is bottled. In comparison, both Scotch and Irish whiskey are allowed to add caramel coloring before bottling)

  • No minimum aging period required
    Legally there is no requirement for how long Bourbon must be aged in a brand new, charred oak container, but anything younger than 4 years old must disclose its age on the bottle label.

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Bourbon Terminology

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it is designed to help you decipher what can be found on bourbon bottles in the aisles of your local liquor store while you shop. Remember that to even print the word ‘bourbon’ on a label, the product must meet the rules set forth above.

  • Straight Bourbon – Bourbon that meets all the above standards for Bourbon and is aged for at least 2 years.

  • Kentucky Straight Bourbon – A straight bourbon that was distilled in Kentucky, and at least 1 of its 2 years of aging must have been spent in Kentucky.

  • Small Batch – A bottle of bourbon produced from a small batch of barrels mingled together. There is no legal definition as to the number of barrels in this ‘batch’. It is a relative term used to distinguish the Bourbon from a mass blended bourbon typically consisting of a larger number of barrels. Compared to a larger mass blended bourbon (consisting of thousand’s of barrels), a small batch bourbon will have a different flavor profile batch to batch and will usually cost more than a mass blended bourbon.

  • Single Barrel – The contents of the bottle came from a single barrel of bourbon. This is not a legally binding term, but it doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity. Single barrel bourbons are highly sought after by experienced bourbon drinkers for their unique and varying flavors profiles, barrel to barrel.

  • Barrel-Proof or Cask-Strength – Whiskey that has been bottled without additional water to lower the proof.

  • Mash Bill – The relative percentages of different grains that go into the whiskey. While bourbon must be at least 51% corn, the remaining percentages can be made up of other grains. It is not required that a distillery disclose its mash bill.

  • Bottled-in-Bond – The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was a series of regulations designed to protect consumers and is a legal term. For a bourbon (or any spirit) to be bottled-in-bond, it must be distilled in its entirety by a single distiller, in a single American distillery, within the course of a single distilling season. Then, it must also be aged for a minimum of four years in a federally bonded facility (a warehouse owned and operated by the state). Lastly, it must be bottled at precisely 100 proof.

  • Chill Filtration – A refining process that removes fatty acids from whiskey before bottling. While it reduces cloudiness and haze in a whiskey, many whiskey-drinkers prefer the mouthfeel of a non-chill-filtered bourbon.

  • Sour Mash – Like a sourdough bread starter, a sour mash is created when a portion of the previously used mash is used to begin a fresh batch. This is the most common way of making whiskey as it helps with flavor consistency from batch to batch.

  • Sourced Bourbon – Not all bourbon is distilled and aged by the folks whose label is on the bottle. To discover this, you can read the back of a bottle and see that the bourbon was distilled, aged, and bottled in different places. If this is the case, the people selling you the bourbon may have had a heavy hand in blending it or they may simply be putting their own label on the product of another company. This is especially common to see from new distillers who need something to sell while their own barrels age.


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how should i drink bourbon?

The short answer is “However you like.”

Many people will tell you that some bourbons should only be enjoyed ‘neat.’ Mostly, I think that’s a nod to how expensive or how difficult to obtain a whiskey is. However, it does make sense to me that if you drove all over God’s creation to find a particular bottle, you wouldn’t want someone mixing it with cola when they could just as easily have used something else. All that means is that if you’re someone who likes to mix their bourbon with coke, bring your own bottle or ask your host first because the short answer to how you should drink bourbon is “however you like.”

If you are someone who aspires to drink their bourbon neat, start with lower-proofed offerings (80-90 proof) and maybe an ice cube. This will help you pay attention to various aromas and tasting notes without having the burn of a more robust bourbon. Then you can slowly remove the ice and explore higher-proofed bottles. Something that many novices fail to consider is glassware. As fellow contributor Jeff Schwartz points out in Glassware 101, it can make a huge difference in how you experience and enjoy your bourbon of choice.

Bourbon also forms the backbone of many incredible cocktails. If you’re just getting into it, this can be an excellent way to try different expressions and generally find out what you like. Earlier this year, my fellow contributors, Erin Petrey and Matt Evans, collaborated on a “Kentucky Campfire Old Fashioned” that I would challenge you to try!

Bourbon's Aromas and Flavors

Due to the rules and regulations of bourbon, there are certain aromas and tasting notes you can safely expect when you try one. Three of the most common flavor profiles easily discerned in most bourbons are:

  • Vanilla – The vanilla in bourbons comes from the breakdown of lignin into vanillin in the oak during the charring process. Vanillin is where the lovely vanilla notes in bourbon come from.

  • Oak – You can't have bourbon without oak, so you'll taste it in some way or another when you sample one. If you're familiar with wine, you're aware that the wood that something is aged in can impart a flavor to it. The longer a bourbon stays in its barrel, the more strongly the oak tends to come through.

  • Caramel – Caramel notes result from the hemicellulose found in oak converting into wood sugars as a result of the barrel charring process.

Beyond these basics, there is a whole universe of flavors that can be discerned in the aromas and tastes of various bourbons. Just browsing some of the reviews on our website might give you notes of 'spearmint,' 'baking spices,' 'crushed walnuts,' 'tobacco,' or 'milk chocolate.'

Remember, though, that taste is subjective and very much rooted in our personal experiences. You cannot smell or taste something that you've never experienced before. Therefore it's very common that your tasting notes for a bourbon will vary from someone else's. Don't worry, though, as there's no single set of 'right' or 'wrong' tasting notes for each bourbon.

Suppose you would like to work on improving your ability to nose and taste bourbon. In that case, we recommend you learn more about our Bourbon Flavor Wheel available for download. It's an excellent tool for helping you to discern different aromas and flavors while enjoying a glass of bourbon.

What's the best way to continue learning about bourbon?

You’ve got more information here than you probably bargained for, but I had a lot of questions when I started, so I tried to provide a lot of answers. Suppose you’re looking for someone to just tell you how to get started. In that case, I recommend drinking it however you like and taking note of what bourbons taste better to you than others. If your goal is just to enjoy it, once you have a bottle or two that you like, use that information to find more!

Try to find other bottles:

  • By the same distillery
  • With the same mash bill
  • Bottled at the same proof
  • Aged for the same amount of time

All of these are variables that you can hone in on as you find bottles that will be ‘daily drinkers’ for you. Once you’ve zeroed in on even a couple of these, you’ll be way more successful at finding new things to try!

You can also take a Bourbon 101 class with Pops to boost your BourbonIQ if you’re so inclined. There’s a “Bourbon in the Blind” course that comes with 3 samples mailed to your door before the live class that even a veteran would enjoy!

If your goal is to become a bourbon connoisseur, here are a few other recommendations to consider:

  • Slowly move to drink your bourbon neat so that the nuances shine through.

  • Take detailed notes about each bourbon you try.

  • Join Bourbon & Banter‘s Patreon and Slack community to run questions by the contributors and trade tasting notes

  • Join our Single Barrel Club to get a hold of single barrel bourbons hand-selected by the Senior Contributors of B&B!

Even though bourbon is a subset of whiskey, it is a world with tremendous spirits, unbelievable stories, incredible people, and beautiful places. I hope you’ll become a part of our community while you explore it by coming back here for recommendations and trade tasting notes and preferences. If you’ve been on this journey for a while, I’d love to hear what I missed or some of the more influential moments in your own Bourbon love story. As always, I hope you branch out to discover all this world has to offer and #DrinkCurious along the way!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sr. Contributor |

A self-made whiskey drinker, Paul’s journey began with Bourbon: America’s National Spirit. Over a decade later, his shelves now contain whiskies from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Japan. A life-long educator, what Paul appreciates most about this community is the regular opportunities he has both to teach and to learn while enjoying a drink with new and old friends!
Read Paul's full profile.

About the Author

Paul Needham

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A self-made whiskey drinker, Paul’s journey began with Bourbon: America’s National Spirit. Over a decade later, his shelves now contain whiskies from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Japan. A life-long educator, what Paul appreciates most about this community is the regular opportunities he has both to teach and to learn while enjoying a drink with new and old friends! Read Paul's full profile.

  • James L Cantrell says:

    Good info. Im hoping to go on the Bourbon trail in the next year. Any info on that adventure.

    • Paul Needham says:

      I would recommend doing a bit of research and figuring out what you want to prioritize (your favorite distilleries, the quality of the tour, or included tasting experiences, etc.). Then don’t pack your trip TOO tightly. You’ll want to see a lot, but you’ll never see it all in one trip, so don’t stress yourself out by trying. Some of the B&B team went as a group about 3 years ago and you can see how we structured our trip here (you’ll probably have to copy/paste as I don’t think I can include links here): https://www.bourbonbanter.com/on-the-road/distilleries/kentucky-barrel-pick-trip-recap-day-1/#.YX_4hZ7MI2x

      Lastly, be safe. Plan an Uber/Lyft/Taxi budget or have a designated driver. Enjoy!