Doctor's Notes

Whiskey Basics Vol. 1: What is Bourbon Whiskey?

May 07, 2023

Bourbon – it’s a drink that is not only synonymous with America, but one that has become a focal point for the global spirits industry. Whether it’s ads for Jim Beam or Makers Mark in your favorite magazine or celebrity endorsements during the Super Bowl, bourbon is everywhere. But what exactly is bourbon whiskey, and how is it defined by US law? 

According to US law, bourbon is a category of whiskey that is made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn. Other grains like rye, wheat, and barley may also be used, but corn must be the dominant grain. The mash is then distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in new charred oak barrels, giving bourbon its distinctive sweet, oaky flavor and deep amber color. Additionally, to be legally labeled as the bourbon, the whiskey must be made exclusively in the United States and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (although many producers, like us, prefer to offer bourbon at a much higher proof to maximize flavor and mouthfeel). 

If you have been drinking bourbon for any length of time, you likely know that there are also specific categories of bourbon that are recognized and regulated by US law. The two most common categories are straight bourbon and bottled-in-bond bourbon.

Straight bourbon is bourbon that has been aged for a minimum of two years and has not been blended with any other spirits. It must also meet the labeling requirements for bourbon, including being made in the US and aged in new charred oak barrels.

Bottled in bond bourbon must be aged for a minimum of four years and bottled at exactly 100 proof. It must also be made by a single distiller at a single distillery during one distilling season (no longer than 6 months) and meet all the standard labeling requirements for bourbon.

In short, bourbon is much more than just another distilled spirit - it’s a product that’s tightly regulated by US law to ensure that it meets specific industry standards. From the mash bill to the aging process, every step of the production process is carefully monitored to ensure that bourbon remains the iconic American whiskey we all know and love. Cheers!

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