Whisky Musings‎ > ‎

Bourbons: Kentucky & Tennessee

We know that all scotch is whisky, but not all whisky is scotch. Whiskies include Irish, Indian, Italian, French, Canadian (commonly known as Rye), Bourbon, and Tennessee Sipping Whisky. And, unsurprisingly, there are rules about what makes each of these whiskies fall into the category it does.

Which begs the question; what makes bourbon, bourbon?

All whiskies are distilled from fermented grains. Grains used to distill whisky can include corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Depending on which grain is used, and whether or not there is a ratio of different grains used, will depend on (or dictate) the type of whisky distilled.

Bourbon, by law, must contain a minimum of 51% corn in the mash-bill. A mash-bill is the blend of grains used by the distiller during the fermentation process. How much of the remaining mash bill is wheat or rye will determine if the end product is a wheated bourbon (typically mellower and softer) or a rye bourbon (a spicier taste). Finally, the mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less and then put into the barrel at 125 proof or less.

The second legal requirement for bourbon is that it has to be aged in a charred new American white oak barrel. This stipulation caused problems for many major distillers during the bourbon boom of the past 10 years when there was a massive shortage of new barrels for the unexpected increased demand. It also explains why many scotches spend a significant portion of their maturation in first fill ex-bourbon barrels. The Scots love to reuse, recycle, and save those pennies!

The final legal requirement for bourbon is that it has to be made in the USA. Much of the bourbon we buy in Alberta originates from a region in Kentucky named Old Bourbon, which lent it's name to the spirit. This area is now known as Bourbon County.