What is bourbon… really?
Breaking the myths
While it is well-known how bourbon must be made, a few untruths or misunderstandings about bourbon still need to be cleared up. Before we get into those, let’s take a moment and review what we know. First of all, to be considered a bourbon, the mash-bill must comprise at least 51% corn and then can contain any other combination of cereal grains. While these cereal grains most commonly will be rye and malted barley or wheat and malted barley, we are starting to see more expressions consisting of all four grains. To be classified as a bourbon, it must also be aged in a new charred oak container, be a minimum of 80 proof, distilled at no more than 160 proof, and entry proof of no more than 125 proof.
There are a couple of items that need to be called out here. First is that the container must be a new charred oak container. This oak can be American White Oak, French Oak, or any other type of oak. Also note that the regulation states that it’s a container, not a barrel, so essentially, the container could be a new charred oak bucket, as long as it is new and has gone through the charring process. The second item is that no minimum age must be considered a bourbon. While Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whisky all must be aged a minimum of three years, effectively, whiskey can be regarded as a bourbon as long as the mash bill is 51% corn minimum and it was stored in a new charred oak container while carrying it from the still to the bottle.
What about Straight Bourbon Whiskey? According to Chapter 4 of the Alcohol Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau, Straight Bourbon Whiskey is defined as Bourbon Whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for two years or more. This can also be a blend of 2 or more straight bourbon whiskies, provided they are all produced in the same state. To be classified as Bottled in Bond, the spirit must adhere to further regulations. It must be produced in the same season, by the same distiller, and at the same distillery. It must also be stored in new charred oak containers in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for a minimum of four years, unaltered from the original condition, and bottled at 100 proof.
With a base understanding of what bourbon is, let’s talk about what is not bourbon. If the whiskey distilled from a bourbon mash is aged in a used or uncharred barrel, it is not a bourbon but rather a whiskey. If it has had any sugars, flavors, or other additives added, it is no longer classified as a bourbon but rather a flavored whiskey. If it has been finished in another type of barrel or with additional staves such as French Oak staves, it is now considered a Whisky Specialty and is to be labeled as a “Bourbon Finished in ….”
What’s left? We have Cask strength, Barrel Proof, Full Proof, Single Barrel, and Small batch, each of which does not have a definition in the TTB Beverage Alcohol Manual. However, the market does have representations of each, and how each is defined is left up to the distiller and the consumer.
Cask strength and Full Proof are relatively interchangeable; you may also see some of their synonyms, like Barrel Strength or Straight from the Barrel. Cask Strength means that the distiller did not cut the proof between the barrel and bottle. Barrel proof, however, is different in that it is subjected to cutting the whiskey down to the proof that it was when it went into the barrel. For example, the whiskey goes into the barrel at 112 proof, but due to its location in the rickhouse, it comes out of the barrel at 120 proof. The distiller may add water to bring it back to its barrel entry proof of 112.
Small batch is a term, while not having a legal definition, which describes a particular style of bourbon blended from what the distillery defines as a small number of barrels to come up with the final blend, which is then bottled. Whereas a standard bourbon could include from a few hundred to a few thousand barrels to be included in the final blend, which is then bottled, a small batch will likely consist of less than a hundred barrels to be considered part of that blend. Ultimately, the number of barrels used in a small batch is up to the master blender’s discretion.
Single Barrel is the final term often associated with a premium, sought-after bourbon. As with small-batch, the single-barrel classification does not have a legal definition. It is generally understood that single-barrel bourbon would come from a single barrel. However, that is only sometimes the case. While the final barrel for the bottled bourbon will come from a single barrel, the barrel could hold a bourbon from a batch of bourbon being finished in a single barrel.
Finally, we come down to the question of the ages, is Tennessee Whiskey a bourbon? The answer is simple: by legal definition, it is bourbon, and the reason is that all of the regulations needed to meet that classification of whiskey are met. However, it was in 2013 that legislation was put forth to define Tennessee Whiskey as a spirit distilled in Tennessee from at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak containers, and has undergone the Lincoln County process of filtering the new-make spirit through charcoal before barreling. So, the final filtering does not disqualify the spirit as a bourbon, as it is not an additive altering the flavor from that presented by the spirit itself. It does distinguish it as its classification of a whiskey separated from bourbon. The choice is yours. If you want to call it a bourbon, you would be right in either case.
Enjoy what you drink, drink what you enjoy, whether it is a Small Batch, Single Barrel, Barrel Proof, or Straight Bourbon, your just a standard bourbon; now you know what makes a bourbon…a bourbon.