a kentucky gentleman’s introduction to bourbon basics

Over the last several years, a quiet but profound revolution has taken place. Dynasties have been toppled, economies have been shattered and the world has been fundamentally altered by the emergence of a new King.


I’m speaking, of course, of Bourbon.


The world has recently realized what we Kentucky Gentlemen have known for decades – that there is simply no finer way to fill a glass than with a spirit that’s spent the last several years (or more if you can stand to wait) aging in newly charred oak. Bourbon, especially small batch and single-barrel varieties, have enjoyed a recent boom all over the world, and who better than a native son to give you the foundations of our native spirit? I will introduce the quintessential bluegrass spirit in a series of posts, beginning with the very basics.


Fundamental to an understanding of bourbon whiskey is a broader understanding of whiskey itself. There are an overwhelming subset of whiskies (Canadian, English, Irish, Japanese, Scotch, etc.), and bourbon is an American Whiskey, meaning simply that it is distilled in America from a fermented mash of cereal grains. It is the specific blend of these grains, known by bourbon aficionados as a mash bill, that elevate an American Whiskey to a Bourbon Whiskey.

The rules that govern Bourbon whiskeys are quite simple, and (quite surprising to some) have exactly nothing to do with the geography of the great state of Kentucky. Bourbon must be:

1. Primarily Corn (51% is required by law for a whiskey to be termed a Bourbon)

2. Aged in new, charred oak barrels. Ever wonder why Bourbon Barrel Ale cropped up? Those barrels start to pile up after a while… (incidentally, BBA is FANTASTIC if you haven’t sampled it)

3. Distilled to no more than 160 proof.

4. Barreled at no more than 125 proof (a whiskey’s proof will increase during the aging process as water evaporates through the barrel, leaving an ever more concentrated spirit as the years pass).

5. Bottled at no less than 80 proof (again, the math may trip some of you up – typically a bourbon is cut with water to a specifically desired proof during the bottling process. We will discuss exceptions later).


Don’t mistake the lack of geographic limits for a discounting of Kentucky Bourbon: most bourbons are made in Kentucky, and many distillers swear by the limestone-heavy water as a crucial element in crafting a fine spirit.


Now that we have skimmed the rules (I know you’re all here for the recommendations, I’m not delusional!), let’s get to the real stuff – what you should be drinking. It bears mentioning that what follows is an opinion, sprinkled with facts and a substantial amount of personal research.


 image via My American Dream

Past the basics, many subsets (yes, more categories) are used to describe the bourbon you’re considering. Some of these terms are vitally important, while some are pure marketing jargon – it’s important that you know the sheep from the wolves.


Small Batch  –  I list this first as a caution… the term ‘small batch’ is perhaps the greatest of the wolves in bourbon marketing. Small batch bourbons are purportedly crafted in smaller quantities, implying a greater attention to detail and an increased rarity. Unfortunately, no rules exist to govern what a small batch of bourbon is, so in effect anyone who can spell both Small and Batch, organize them on a label and print can charge a few more dollars for their trouble. This is not to say that small batch Bourbons are to be avoided, but you shouldn’t prize this attribute.


Single Barrel  –  Small Batch may be bunk, but this one has real meaning. A bourbon labeled thus is telling you that it is the product of one barrel, meaning that it has not been mingled with multiple barrels prior to its bottling. My favorites in this category include one of my preferred everyday bourbons, Blanton’s (the original single-source bourbon), as well as 10-year-old Eagle Rare.


 Image via Wikipedia

Mashbill Contents (Rye, Corn, Wheat)  –  We know that all bourbons have to be at least 51% Corn. The remaining 49% is typically filled with more Corn, Barley and Rye. The balance of these grains are what distinguish the flavor profiles of the host of bourbons on the market. Bourbons with a high Rye content (Four Roses Single Barrel, Basil Hayden, Bulleit et al.) are typically a bot more bold and spicy (think Rye bread), while those high in Corn will be a tad sweeter, as is the case with Buffalo Trace’s Old Charter. When these grain levels are taken to the extreme, you are left with Rye Whiskey (I love Sazerac and Van Winkle Rye) or Corn Whiskey.


 Image via Spar

Wheated Bourbons  –  There are moments in all things where genius is accompanied by insanity – distilling is no exception. A handful of rebellious distillers choose to add Wheat to their mashbill, and the results can be absolutely phenomenal. Maker’s Mark is the best known amongst the wheated bourbons, but the genius of wheat is found in the Van Winkle varieties (which, ironically, are impossible to find). Revived after prohibition, a third and fourth generation of Van Winkles now distill this magical spirit in ages ranging from 10 to 23 years. These are my absolute favorites amongst bourbons – you will find no fewer than 3 varieties of Van Winkle on my shelf at any given time. Wheated bourbons are exceptionally smooth and a shade softer than your average bourbon.


 Image via Elements Bar Blog

Cask Strength  –  Bourbon is typically distilled at a high proof and then cut to a specific proof when bottled. Cask strength varieties eschew this tradition, offering themselves exactly as they entered the world. These bourbons are exceptionally flavorful, but should be consumed with both water and care – they are extremely powerful. Bourbon lovers will adore the flexibility of these spirits, as they offer the opportunity to cut the whiskey to taste. Always do so – not only will cutting ensure that you do not dial everyone you ever dated, it enhances and unlocks the flavor of your chosen cask-strength. Always ensure that you are cutting with water that matches the bourbon you’re drinking – Louisville’s tap water can win all the awards it wants, but a distilled or spring water will usually be a better choice. Lexington tap water is right out.


These are but a few of the variants you’ll encounter, but to my eyes they’re the ones worth mentioning. In the end, picking the right bourbon has a whole lot to do with how you plan to drink it. I prefer mine neat, you may prefer it on the rocks or in a Manhattan – and we’d love to hear about it! To encourage you, Bluegrass Threads will be giving away a year-long subscription to The Bourbon Review. To enter, simply like us on Facebook and tell us about your favorite Bourbon or Bourbon-based cocktail in the comments below! We will be accepting comments/entries until 9 pm on Sunday, August 12.  I will announce the winner in my next post, where I’ll be telling you what I keep in my personal liquor stash.


-The Kentucky Gentleman


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8 thoughts on “a kentucky gentleman’s introduction to bourbon basics”

  1. I have visited Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey distilleries…. and drove by Heaven Hill (I’m sorry, but in the dark, that place just looks like an old asylum!).

    My favorite bourbon is defintely Maker’s Mark and my drink is one I found in a 2010 issue of “Spirit” magazine called the Brick Wall. The drink includes cider, sugar, ginger, allspice berries, cloves, bourbon, ginger ale and a slice of a Granny Smith apple. It’s a wonderfully warm drink for fall!

  2. Booker’s, neat (because it is oh-so-smooth), or Blanton’s on the rocks. Oddly enough, I didn’t acquire my taste for bourbon until I moved out of Kentucky. But now that I’ve come to my senses (of taste, that is) the flood gates have opened and I want to know everything about my favorite spirit. This blog is genius.

  3. 1 oz. Buffalo Trace Bourbon and 2 oz. of Bourbon Cream served over ice. Absolutely delicious also if you pour it over butter pecan ice cream!

  4. Perhaps being a member of the Medley family has be a bit biased, but I prefer Wathen’s straight up. Living in PA now, with their ridiculous state controlled liquor board, it’s hard to sample a wide variety of bourbons. On my most recent trip home I picked up a bottle of Angel’s Envy and was very impressed.

  5. Loved this informative article! Although I don’t drink bourbon as a rule, I do make a wonderful, moist date cake with a bourbon sauce and I’m glad to be more informed about which bourbon would be best to use. Thanks!

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