A Brief Bourbon Breakdown
Here in the south, we take our brown water seriously. In Tennessee and Kentucky in particular, our histories are so intertwined with whiskey and bourbon, it’s what our states are known for around the world. But beyond knowing you like it and it tastes delicious (which to be fair are the most important things to note), many people don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the spirit. Lucky for you, I’m a Stave & Thief Society Certified Executive Bourbon Steward, and I’m here to share a brief bourbon breakdown that will help you better understand the liquid passing your lips and warming your belly.
The most common question I get asked in my line of work is : “What’s the difference between whiskey and bourbon?” And the simplest answer is this:
All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons.
Allow me to break that down.
Within the broad category of whiskey there are more specific classifications that must meet certain criteria to call themselves that designation and not just “whiskey.” For a spirit to be considered a ‘whiskey’, at its most basic level it is a distilled spirit from a blend of fermented grains that is aged in a wooden vessel anywhere in the world. Most commonly the grains are corn, rye, wheat and malted barley. The location and direction a producer takes during the fermentation and aging process dictates what classification of whiskey it will be. Within the whiskey category there are currently 17 sub-categories, but for the sake of time and space within this article I am only going to focus on Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.
A very common misconception is that Bourbon must be made in Kentucky and that is not true. Bourbon can - and must - be made anywhere in the US, it just happens to be most historically produced in that state, and is very delicious due to their limestone-rich water sources. Bourbon must meet these requirements to legally use that designation: it must be at least 51% corn, it must be distilled at less than 160 proof and entered into barrel at less than 125 proof, and must touch new, charred, American Oak barrels. From there you can get into more and more narrow designations, but that is bourbon at its bare minimum.
Despite what loyal Kentuckians will tell you, there is absolutely no difference between Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey, except the location its produced and one extra filtration. To be considered a TN Whiskey and not Bourbon, the whiskey must meet all the aforementioned bourbon requirements, and additionally be produced only in the state of Tennessee and go through a sugar maple charcoal filtration called the “Lincoln County Process.” Charcoal has long been considered an exceptional filter when distilling spirits, so this extra step is believed to further purify the liquid.
The beauty of whiskey is just how varied the flavors can be once you understand what you’re looking for. Obviously the amount of grains used will affect the taste; for example a wheated whiskey is going to be soft and easy on the pallet, while a high rye will be bold and spicy. In my opinion, a tell-tale signature of TN whiskey is the aroma of banana on the nose, due to the high corn content. But there’s an endless list of factors that determines the final result achieved; Everything from the quality of water used, to the char level on the oak and even the location of the barrel inside the rickhouse during aging, which means each and every single barrel can taste different.
For that reason we have terminology like “small batch” and “single barrel.” If a bottle is labeled “small batch,” that means it’s a blend of multiple barrels and is likely to have a more consistent flavor. There is no legal definition for “small batch” and is thus determined by the size of the distillery. For example, Jim Beam’s version of a “small batch” blend is going to be far larger than a smaller distillery like Rabbit Hole. The term “single barrel” means exactly what it says: that bottle was filled from a single barrel, and will contain numbers from the distillery. Collectors love getting multiple bottles from various batches and barrels for their stash to compare flavors, but of course these single barrel bottles will vary and have less consistency in flavor than a blend.
There is no “right” way to drink bourbon, so don’t let some snob tell you that the way you consume it isn’t correct. I personally believe the best way to enjoy a spirit you spent your hard-earned money on is precisely the way you like it, whether that’s neat, on a rock, or mixed with soda. I have a friend who mixes expensive tequila with Dr.Enuf and god bless her, she loves it, so that’s exactly how she should drink it. I do think it’s beneficial to taste a product on its own before you decide it needs to be enhanced however. When tasting spirits it’s helpful to have a Glencairn glass for tasting, as the shape of this small glass will push the aroma from the broad bulb through the narrow passage into your nose and make for better smelling. A few drops of filtered water will also help lower the proof to a level that is optimum for tasting and open up the flavors. Because most whiskeys are over 90 proof and can even reach 125 proof, the alcohol content can overwhelm the other flavors. Decreasing the proof to somewhere around 80-90 will ensure you can enjoy and pinpoint the various aromas and flavors. Lightly swirl the liquid in the bulb, get your nose far into the glass and breathe in deeply, alternating from one nostril to the other. (Fun fact: throughout the day your nostrils will switch back and forth on which one can smell more strongly.) Then take a sip, allowing the whiskey to linger and coat all over your gums, tongue and cheeks, before finally swallowing, breathing out and processing the aftertaste. (Please do not shoot it. Spirits are intended to be savored, not swallowed as quickly as possible.)
This is as far as I can go on a basic bourbon and whiskey introduction, but there’s so much more to learn! I hope you all get out and explore; there are thousands of bottles on the shelves, and understanding what some of these terms mean can help you better discover your personal preferences or even something new you otherwise would have overlooked. Happy hunting!