Bourbon 101

bourbon barrels

bourbon barrelsThe weather is turning colder in other areas of the country, they tell me, trees are shedding leaves, wood is being gathered for fireplaces by various rustic types, and turning toward the brown spirits are the bloodshot eyes of drinkers.

Me? I am a bit unique because as I sit here in the beautiful warm weather, my bloodshot eyes, as they always do, continue to focus on those brown barrel aged spirits.

Since we recently visited Garrison’s Bourbon Distillery here in Texas, I thought I might offer some insight on that good old bourbon whiskey.


Just what is it really, and thoughts on how to make bourbon.

It is from a grain mixture at least 51% corn that, by law, bourbon must be made.(the other 49% I’ll talk about later). It is in new charred-oak barrels that bourbon is aged, and to less than 80% alcohol by volume (ABV), it is distilled. It enters the casks, when it is pumped into the barrels, at no more than 62.5% ABV. Then it must be at least 40% ABV when it is finally bottled.

Mash Bill

It is it’s recipe, that is the mash bill of a bourbon. As mentioned earlier, at least 51% corn bourbon must contain, but it then depends on the tastes of the distiller as to what the other mash bill grains are. Any grains are a possibility: some distillers use oats, rice, and various different other grains. The majority of bourbons however, are a mix of rye, wheat, and corn, and at times barley.

High Rye

Identified as a high-rye bourbon is one that features rye as the second major ingredient. As opposed to wheat or corn, rye is a richer, spicier grain, and as a result, high-rye bourbons are typically richer and spicier. Some examples include Wild Turkey and Bulleit.


Identified as a wheated bourbon, or a wheater, is a bourbon where wheat is the second major ingredient. As opposed to high-rye versions, wheated bourbons are sweeter. Some examples are W.L. Weller and Maker’s Mark. You should not mix this up with a wheat whiskey like Burnheim. That one is not bourbon, by law, because it is 51% wheat.

Age Statement

A disclaimer regarding the age of the bottle’s youngest bourbon is what an age statement is. As an example, a bourbon that carries an age statement of 8 years will be entirely made from bourbons which are 8 years old, and older. By law, there is no need to carry an age statement, if a bourbon is older than four years.

Straight Bourbon

“Straight Bourbon” is one term which may appear on a label. And beyond those of regular bourbon, there are additional legal requirements for this category. At least two years old, straight bourbon must be. It must carry an age statement, if it is younger than 4 but older than 2, and the youngest bourbon in the bottle must be reflected in that age statement. Finally, no added flavorings or colorings may be contained in straight bourbon.

Sour Mash

“Sour Mash” is still another term you will see. It is by adding to a fresh batch a portion of previously used mash that sour mash is made. The flavor of the finished whiskey is not affected, even though this procedure makes the mash taste a bit sour.

There are two advantages to this procedure: first, from batch to batch, it helps ensure consistency, and next, the pH of the batch is lowered, and this leads to additional efficient fermentation.

Sweet Mash

There is in fact a “sweet mash”, but it is rather rare. Only fresh yeast is added to the batch in a sweet mash. And because a higher pH is contained in a sweet mash, meaning different fermentation of the mash, flavors not generally found in sour mashes are produced. In recent years, Woodford Reserve has done some experimentation with sweet mashes.

Bottling Proof

Bourbons are, to bottling proof, diluted with water prior to being bottled. Typically this is 80 proof, which to still be called a bourbon, is the lowest it may be diluted. The supply of bourbon is stretched by adding water, and thus the expense of producing it is lessened. Some bourbons are sold at higher proofs. For example, Wild Turkey comes in at 101 proof.

Cask Strength

A cask-strength bourbon, also known as barrel-proof bourbon, is undiluted. What you get in the bottle is 124.6 proof, if that is what comes out of the barrel. There are a lot of different factors that affect cask strengths from one barrel to the next, things like weather conditions, and warehouse placement, just to name a couple. How much liquor has over time evaporated is what the bourbon’s strength depends on. It will be lower proof, if more alcohol evaporates. It will be higher, if more water evaporates. All barrels are decidedly different. As an example, ranging from 121-130 proof is Booker.

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