What Is a Bourbon?

Why should we concern ourselves with what is a bourbon? If it’s good, drink it, right? What’s pedigree got to do with it? We don’t need to see its papers to determine it’s worthy. Hey, I’m with you on that in the abstract. I don’t care what the spirit, if it rings your bell, go for it. But I, for one, do want to know what I’m drinking.

The abstract is just that: abstract. All tires are round and made of some sort of rubber composite. That’s about all I need know when waxing on about tires as I sit in my living room. When I’m rolling along the open road at 80 miles per hour, however, I want to know a little more about the tires on my ride. It takes the issue from the abstract into the real.

Half of the fun of pursuing bourbon is its colorful history, as well as the stories attached to its many brands. We’ll leave storytime for another column. Here, we are going to talk some facts. My intention is, after reading this, you will have a better understanding of bourbon nomenclature and maybe win a bet or two when sitting at a bar sipping bourbon with friends. If you don’t sip bourbon, sit at bars or have any friends, this read will be more of an existential exercise for you.

In the spirit of transforming the abstract into the tangible, let’s dissect the label for Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. I think that should cover nearly all the bases. Here we go…

Colonel E. H. Taylor – Arguably the father of modern bourbon distilling. At the end of the Civil War (Or, as we call it in South Carolina, The War of Northern Aggression.) Edmond Haynes Taylor Jr. acquired the OFC distillery (the core of today’s Buffalo Trace Distillery) near Frankfort, Ky. He was the grand nephew of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, but he never held the rank of colonel in any military organization. He was, however, a Kentucky Colonel, as was Harlan Sanders of KFC fame.

Small Batch – This is whatever a distiller means it to be. There are no rules for slapping “Small Batch” on a bourbon label. What we should consider it to be is a bourbon created from a limited number of barrels. “Single Barrel” means the contents are all from the same barrel. When Single or Small Batch isn’t on the label, the contents probably contain bourbon mixed from hundreds of barrels. Think Maker’s Mark or Early Times. Small batch is fewer barrels than that.

Bourbon – To earn the bourbon designation the whiskey must be distilled in the United States. Its mashbill (recipe) must contain at least 51 percent corn (Rye or wheat, as well as barley, comprise the rest.) and it must come off the still at no higher than 160 proof. It must go into (aged) in unused charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof. No coloring or flavoring can be added. It must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. There is no minimum aging limit to qualify as a bourbon, but there must be an age statement on the label if any of the contents were aged for fewer than four years. Oh, and whiskey isn’t bourbon until it enters the barrel.

Kentucky Bourbon – Although Kentucky by far distills the lion’s share (roughly 95 percent of U.S. bourbon production) of bourbon, it can be made anywhere in the U.S. There are more barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky rackhouses then there are residents. For a bourbon to carry “Kentucky” on the label, it must be made in Kentucky. Hey, but don’t be a Kentucky-bourbon snob. There are some very solid bourbons coming out of Texas, Virginia and other states.

Straight Bourbon – To be labeled “Straight Bourbon,” the whiskey must be aged a minimum of two years and all the bourbon in the bottle be distilled in the same state.

Bottled in Bond – Although the rules have changed a bit since the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, the basic idea hasn’t. At its passage, the Bottled in Bond Act, supported by Kentucky distillers, allowed for federal government supervision of aging and bottling of certain bourbon. At the time, distillers didn’t bottle their product. Bottling was left to distributors, who had the option of tinkering with the bourbon before bottling it. To be labeled Bottled in Bond, the aging and bottling was completed at the distilleries, and overseen by government inspectors. To wear “Bottled in Bond” on its label today, a bourbon must have been all distilled in the same distillery during the same calendar year. It must have been barrel aged for a minimum of four years to a maximum of 20 years. And, finally, it must be 100 proof (50 percent alcohol by volume). The government no longer controls the warehouses.

Let’s review. So, what we know about this bottle of bourbon from reading the label is, it’s named for an iconic bourbon distiller. It is bourbon distilled in Kentucky and aged no less than four years. The contents of the bottle are from a small number of barrels filled with bourbon distilled in the same distillery during the same calendar year. And finally, it is 100 proof: no more and no less.

Russ is a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.

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