Bourbon is everywhere these days, y'all. In 20 years, it's gone from the drink you enjoy at Kentucky's racetracks to the quintessential American spirit. Of course, here in Kentucky, we're at the heart of the bourbon boom, which is wonderful for everything from the tourism revenue to the resultant Kentucky culinary renaissance. But, I've noticed a little secret that we don't always want to admit: Not every Kentuckian is a bourbon expert. I've decided to start a series of HerKentucky blog and social media posts to help you decode the secret language of bourbon. Today, we'll start with a little bourbon dictionary. Here's the lowdown on ten whiskey terms that will have you talking like a bourbon insider in no time!
What are you drinking: Whiskey, bourbon, or rye?
Whiskey: Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain mash. These grains are, most often, wheat, barley, corn, or rye. The grain recipe (mash bill) that is used to produce the whiskey is responsible for much of the beverage's taste. Whiskey types (Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, etc.) are often determined by the spirit's country of origin. An alternate spelling is "whisky"; this is the traditionally accepted spelling in Scotland and many other countries.
Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbon Whiskey is a type of whiskey made in the United States. By law, bourbon must be produced in the United States, comprised of at least 51% corn, aged in new, charred oak containers, distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume), entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume), and bottled at 80 proof or above. While we all know that the best bourbon comes from Kentucky, federal law does not mandate that the spirit be produced in our Commonwealth. For an excellent history of the legislation surrounding bourbon, see Fred Minnick's Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.
Rye Whiskey: American Rye Whiskey is a distillate that must include at least 51% rye in its mash bill. (Canadian rye whiskey is a different spirit.) Historically, rye whiskey was produced near Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh was historically considered the major metropolitan hub for rye. Rye wasn't a spirit considered native to Kentucky for centuries, as our climate isn't conducive to growing that grain. Many major bourbon distilleries have recently introduced rye to their whiskey offerings. Rye whiskeys are often characterized as more herbaceous and less sweet than bourbons. I recommend Manhattan cocktails made with Michter's Rye or Woodford Reserve Rye as an entry point for rye whiskey.
How is it made?
Mash bill: A mash bill is the mix of grains combined to make a whiskey. The grains are cooked and fermented. Three grains are typically found in a bourbon mash bill: corn, wheat or rye, and malted barley. The individual mash bills, or recipes, determine most of a whiskey's flavor. A wheat mash bill, like that of Maker's Mark or Pappy Van Winkle, results in a sweet bourbon. A high rye formula, like that of Bulleit or Basil Hayden's, is often described as spicy.
Sour Mash: The sour mash process of whiskey-making involves using a little spent mash from the previous batch to start the fermentation of the next batch. This process controls the growth of harmful bacteria and regulates the whiskey's pH. This process is used to make almost all bourbon whiskey.
How is it Bottled?
Straight Whiskey: Take a look at your bourbon label sometime, and you'll likely see the term "Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey." This means that, of course, it is produced in Kentucky (the label, by law, must contain the state of distillation) and that it adheres to the regulations for bourbon, as defined above. Straight whiskey has been aged for at least two years; if it is aged for less than 4, the age statement must, by law, be noted on the label. Straight whiskey may be created by blending bourbons that were aged in different batches and even different years to create a consistent product. No additional additives (color, flavor, clear spirits) other than water (which tempers the proof) may be added to straight whiskey.
Bottled-in-Bond: Bottled-in-Bond bourbon was made at a single distillery, by one distiller in one distillation season, aged for at least four years in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 is considered a revolution in bourbon-making, as it ensured both quality for the consumer and standardization of the federal taxes levied on the distillers. Bottled-in-Bond whiskeys are far less common than they once were; you may see this distinction on some bourbons like Old Fitzgerald and Old Bardstown.
Single Barrel: Single bourbons are, as the name suggests, a limited release in which every bottle comes from one barrel. Due to the variations and scarcity, these are often an ultra-premium expression. Blanton's is the first bourbon that was widely marketed as a single barrel.
Small Batch: Small batch bourbons are made from a highly limited number of barrels per batch. Maker's Mark and Willett are considered small-batch bourbons.
These terms should have you talking bourbon like a pro! (Or at least an experienced amateur!) Let me know in the comments if there are bourbon basics topics that you'd like to see posts about!