What is Bourbon?

All about bourbon whiskey.

What is bourbon

Bourbon is an alcoholic beverage made with 51% distilled corn and other grains.

The difference between bourbon and wine is that wine involves fermented grapes. Simply, wine is made from fruit, and bourbon is made from grains.

Bourbon is a popular spirit among mixologists and home bartenders.

Here, I break down what bourbon is. Hint: all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is an American whiskey. But most bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, which is considered its birthplace. Distillers can only label a whiskey as bourbon when its mash bill is made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. Additional rules regulate the alcohol proof, time spent aging, bottling, labeling, mixing and more.

It bears repeating, bourbon whiskey is only be made in the U.S.A.

Bourbon Categories

There are 6 types of bourbon!

Single Barrel

Single barrel bourbon comes from one barrel and is not blended. Flavors will vary from barrel to barrel within the same brand.

Did you know? There are more bourbon barrels in Kentucky than people.

Cask Strength

These bourbons come straight from the barrel.

They are often spice-forward with notes of the burn and char from the barrel.


Also known as “wheaters”. These bourbons are less spicy, sour and floral.

Wheated bourbons are known for being nutty and softer.

High rye

A few bourbon recipes have more than the traditional 10% rye for a bolder, spicier taste.

Popular examples of high rye bourbons are Bulleit and Four Roses.

High corn

These bourbon bottles are sweeter in flavor. And not to be confused with corn whiskey, a separate category of whiskey.

Small batch

Small batch bourbon is essentially produced by mixing up a small number of barrels. Unlike a distillers’ flagship bottle which may mix hundreds or thousands of barrels.

Elite, small batch bourbons are produced in fewer quantity and the batch or barrel number is usually noted on the bottle.

An examples of a popular small batch bourbon is Woodford Reserve.

How to taste bourbon and develop your palate

If you want to build a bourbon palate like a pro, then you have to experience it with an open mind.

To develop a taste for bourbon, you need to activate your taste and smell receptors to recognize the different flavor notes in the drink.

Bourbon whiskey is made up of various chemicals that produce thousands of different flavor notes, and the number of notes one can detect depends on how activated their palate is based on their past experiences.

People with a more varied diet will be able to detect more flavor and smell notes in bourbon than those with a limited experience.

This is due to science reasons rather than my personal philosophy.

Visit a bourbon distillery

To develop a whiskey palate, one should start by visiting local distilleries and booking guided tastings.

This allows for an understanding of basic flavor notes and what makes them prominent, while also providing a chance to experience the surroundings of the distillery, such as the scents of the warehouse and the trees and bushes nearby.

The more distilleries you visit, the more sensory memories you’ll have and the better frame of reference for future tastings.

By building these sensory memories, the nuances of different bourbons will become more apparent and enjoyable.

Bourbon flavor profile

What does bourbon taste like exactly?

Bourbon has a flavor profile all its own.

So, what makes bourbon taste the way it does?

  • Bourbon tasting involves considering the nose, flavor, and finish on the palate.
  • The tasting notes in bourbon come from factors like yeast strain and aging in charred oak barrels.
  • There are 9 common tasting notes found in bourbon.

Tasting notes in bourbon come from various sources like the yeast strain used, mash bill, and aging process in charred oak barrels, which contribute 60% of the flavor.

Several facets explain bourbon’s unique flavor. The nine common tasting notes in bourbon include:

  • vanilla
  • wood and nuts
  • fruit
  • sweets
  • baking spices
  • floral
  • herbaceous
  • earthy
  • smoky notes

Popular Bourbon Brands

Let’s talk about bourbon brands and their flavor profiles.

  • Jim Beam: This classic Kentucky bourbon is the world’s best-selling bourbon. Sometimes, the best stuff is the most affordable.
  • Maker’s Mark: Another Kentucky bourbon, Maker’s Mark is known for its distinctive red wax seal and its smooth, balanced flavor profile.
  • Bulleit Bourbon: You’ll also taste some sweetness from the corn and a hint of smokiness from the charred oak barrels.
  • Wild Turkey: This Kentucky bourbon is a dependable bourbon that is bottled at 101 proof with a slightly hotter, spicier edge than other comparable whiskeys.
  • Knob Creek: is a consistently excellent, 100-proof bourbon that is nutty, rich in caramel and brown sugar flavor with limited-edition 12 and 15-year-old expressions available.
  • Evan Williams: is a great cheap cocktail bourbon that is stronger at 86 proof with other good expressions to try besides the classic Black Label.
  • Four Roses: Yellow Label is an excellent budget bourbon that is great in cocktails and sipping on its own. It is one of the best bourbons you can find for the price, and the Four Roses Small Batch is also tasty and more moderately priced.
  • Michter’s: Has a rich flavor profile with notes of sweet, spice, vanilla, and cocoa, making it an excellent choice for everyday drinking.
  • Old Forester: is a bourbon brand known for its inexpensive yet high-quality whiskey. It has more flavor than the average bourbon.

Related: 14 Best Bourbon Mixers 

How to Drink Bourbon

You can drink bourbon neat, straight up, on the rocks, or in a cocktail.

Neat bourbon is poured into a glass without any mixers or ice.

Straight up bourbon is poured into a glass and chilled, usually by stirring or shaking with ice, and then strained into a glass without the ice.

Bourbon on the rocks is poured over ice cubes in a glass.

Bourbon Cocktail Recipes

Bourbon has culinary uses beyond being a beverage.

Bourbon can be used to make a variety of desserts such as fruit-based desserts, confections, and pies. It can also be used to flavor savory dishes like sauces for grit cakes, chili, and steak.

Bourbon has also been used for medicinal purposes in the past.

How Bourbon Is Made

Determine the Mash Bill

The master distiller first determines the recipe (or mash bill) of different grains to use for the bourbon’s creation.

The American Bourbon Association requires that bourbon sold in the United States is distilled from a mixture of grains (or mash) that must be comprised of at least 51 percent corn.

The grain is ground and mixed with water to create a sour mash, which is then fermented with yeast to produce a clear spirit known as “white dog.”

The white dog is then placed in charred new oak barrels, which are made from American white oak and lend the bourbon its distinct flavor and color.

Combine the Base Ingredients

To make a fermentable base, distillers will mix grains—corn, rye, and barley malt—with water and yeast.

They then heat and stir the mixture (sometimes called “bourbon mash”) to ensure it’s well combined and ready to ferment.


For the fermentation process, bourbon makers store their base mixture in a vat for a specified amount of time—from one to two weeks—to fully ferment the mixture.

During this step, the compounds begin to break down and produce a simple, natural alcohol called ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Yeast and sour mash are added to the mixture at this point.

Sour mash is the leftover mash from a previous distillation, which reduces the mash’s pH to prevent bacteria growth.

Strain the Mixture

Once fermentation is complete, distillers strain off the liquid from the fermented solids.

They’ll discard the solids and use the liquid (ethanol) to make the bourbon.


Distillation is a process that purifies a liquid by heating and vaporizing it, then collecting the vapor as it recondenses into a liquid.

The resulting liquid (distillate) is considered purer (since it leaves behind many impurities when it evaporates) and more alcoholic.

A majority of bourbon is put through the distilling process twice. The first round involves distillation in a beer still.

The second round involves distillation in heated copper pot stills, referred to as doublers or thumpers.

These rounds serve to boost the alcohol content and remove impurities.

Aging and Barreling

Once the bourbon reaches between 80 and 125 proof, distillers must age it in a new charred oak barrel for at least two years before it can be called straight bourbon.

Changes to the spirit occur due to evaporation and chemical processes such as oxidation. The longer the bourbon is aged, the richer and more complex its flavor becomes.

(The aging process is shorter than that of Scotch whiskey from Scotland, which must age for three years.).

The charred layers of oak help caramelize the sugars, contributing to the spirit’s distinct flavor and color.

Depending upon how a distiller wants the barrel to affect their bourbon, they can choose the degree to which the oak barrel or oak container is charred.


Before bottling, distillers may chill-filter the bourbon to remove any long-chain protein molecules and impurities that may cause the spirit to become hazy or cloudy when stored at low temperatures.

To ensure the proper alcohol content, distillers test and dilute their product with filtered water before or after aging (sometimes both).

Once the spirit is bottled, it stops aging.

Water Transport

Kentucky bourbon developed a superior taste because it was shipped in barrels using water transport wherever possible.

Barrels that make a waterborne journey have been found to be richer and more complex than other samples.

The History of Bourbon

Bourbon isn’t just a spirit; it’s a piece of American history. The legends surrounding its creation add to its allure.

Kentucky Origins

While there are conflicting stories about the invention of bourbon, it’s clear that the process of aging whiskey in charred oak casks originated in Kentucky.

Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers brought distilling to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century. They began farming the area and using their skills to create a distinct form of whiskey.

The Bourbon Name

The origin of the name “bourbon” is debated.

Historian Michael Veach proposes that the whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Others argue that the name comes from the geographic region of Old Bourbon, which included much of Eastern Kentucky.


Prohibition devastated the bourbon industry, with all distilleries forced to shut down.

Some were granted permits to bottle existing stocks of medicinal whiskey, and a few were allowed to resume production when the stocks ran out.

Made in the U.S.A.

Bourbon is now a distinctive product of the United States, according to a concurrent resolution adopted by the United States Congress in 1964.

Higher-end bourbon and whiskeys have experienced significant growth in popularity in recent years.

In 2014, over 19 million nine-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold.

Bourbon vs Whiskey

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

The main difference between bourbon and whiskey is the type of grain used in the production process, and the geographical location in which the whiskey is made.

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is made from a mash bill (the mixture of grains used to make the whiskey) that must contain at least 51% corn.

It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years and must be produced in the United States.

Whiskey, on the other hand, is a broader category that includes bourbon, as well as other types of whiskey such as Scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, and others.

Each type of whiskey has its own specific requirements for production, including the type of grains used, the distillation process, and the aging process.

Related: Bourbon vs Whiskey vs Scotch

Whiskey or Whisky: What’s the Difference?

Whiskey and whisky are spellings used for the same distilled spirit made from fermented grains.

Whiskey is the spelling used for spirits made in the United States and Ireland, while whisky is used for those made in Scotland, Canada, and Japan.

The difference lies in the country of origin.

Bourbon FAQs

Where does the name bourbon come from?

The name bourbon comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it is believed that the whiskey was first produced.

Is it bourbon good for cocktails?

Yes, bourbon is a versatile spirit that is often used in cocktails. It pairs well with a variety of mixers, including cola, ginger beer, and citrus.

Does whiskey or bourbon have more sugar?

Bourbon tends to be sweeter, and typically has a higher sugar content than whiskey. However, the sugar content of whiskey is unlikely to significantly affect a person’s sugar intake in most cases.

Why is whiskey bourbon so sweet?

Most bourbons have some sweetness, however some are sweeter than other. This is due to the aging process in new charred oak barrels. This process releases caramel and vanilla flavors.

Is bourbon keto-friendly?

Straight spirits like bourbon and whiskey have zero carbs. However, bourbon has calories which comes from alcohol. A 1.5-ounce shot of bourbon contains 0 grams of carbs and approximately 97 calories.

Related: 30 Best Keto Alcoholic Drinks

Written by Gina Elizabeth

Gina Elizabeth is an investment analyst and blogger. She sometimes eats pretty good, other times not. Hey, you gotta live, you know?