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Taster’s Club Guide to Bourbon

Bourbon is one of the hottest spirits right now, gaining popularity among a younger crowd. Whereas whiskey has been one of the more traditionally well-known drinks for hundreds of years, bourbon is a rising star in the whiskey category. So what is bourbon, how do you choose a bottle, and how do you drink it? We’ll answer these questions and more in our complete guide to bourbon.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made of grain, yeast, and water. It’s named after its birthplace Bourbon County, Kentucky, first produced in the 1700s. It used to be shipped down the Mississippi River to Louisiana, making its way to Bourbon Street, the most historic street in the heart of the French Quarter of New Orleans. By tradition, true bourbon comes from distilleries in Old Bourbon County, and even though new laws now allow the bourbon to be produced anywhere in the US, most distilleries outside of Kentucky don’t use the term “bourbon” in their whiskeys out of respect. Besides that, the limestone water in Kentucky and the climate are two primary factors in determining the flavors, which means that bourbon produced elsewhere won’t have the terroir of Kentucky-made bourbon.

Though each distiller has its own methods of producing bourbon, it must pass six specific criteria by law to qualify as bourbon.

  • It must be made in the USA.
  • It must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. Distillers can use a combination of any other grains in the other 49%. These often include rye, barley, and/or wheat grain.
  • It must be aged in “new” charred American oak barrels. There is no specification of how long a bourbon must be aged, but if it’s labeled as a “straight” bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years. If there is no age statement, it’s usually a younger bourbon, aged less than two years. 
  • It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV.
  • When it enters the barrel, it can’t be more than 62.5% ABV. 
  • At bottling, it must be at 40% ABV or more, which is standard for other whiskeys as well.

Types of Bourbon

Most bourbons are made with a mash bill of corn, rye, and malted barley, but they can be divided into sub-categories depending on how much of each grain is used and how long the juice is aged for. First, let’s explore the different types of bourbon and their typical flavor characteristics. 

  • High Rye bourbon is not legally defined, but in general, bourbons that include a mash bill of 20% to 35% rye are considered “high rye” and deliver an extra helping of spice notes. These are bold bourbons with extra spicy notes. 
  • High Corn bourbon contains more than 51% corn, and many of them are made from 60% to 70% corn. While there aren’t many bourbons higher than this, there are some with 80% to 100% corn, and these are much sweeter than other bourbons. 
  • Wheated bourbon substitutes wheat for rye, so they’re a combination of corn, wheat, and barley. These are more mellow and a bit softer on the palate, with flavors of caramel and vanilla. 
  • Straight bourbon has been aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels and has no added coloring or flavoring. They offer rich, sweet vanilla and candy-like flavors with notes of cooking spices.
  • Single barrel bourbon indicates the liquor has spent its life in just one barrel or cask. Water can be added to reach the desired proof, but not always. The time spent in a single cask allows the flavors to deepen, offering sweeter notes of caramel, vanilla, oak, and baking spices.
  • Blended bourbon is a mixture of one or more straight bourbons produced in different U.S. states, and they can contain other flavorings, coloring, or spirits. The rule is that it must be at least 51% straight bourbon. These bourbons vary greatly in flavors, but they can be bold, spicy, sweet, citrusy, earthy, or a combination of any of these. 
  • Small batch bourbon is made in smaller batches from hand-selected barrels, but there isn’t a regulated definition for small-batch bourbon. Some bottles include the number of barrels or bottles produced on the label, but it’s not necessary. As you might expect, there’s a wide range of flavors depending on the ingredients. 
  • Craft bourbon is another term that’s not very well defined but often describes juice produced in smaller, local distilleries. It doesn’t define quality or flavor because there’s not a regulated definition of craft that distilleries must adhere to. Instead, the more important thing is “how” it’s crafted. 
  • Barrel-proof bourbon means that the barrel or cask is poured, filtered, and bottled without adding any water. Again, the complexity of flavors varies. 

Guide to Bourbon – Choosing a Bottle

We always encourage you to read the label of your bottle. See where is was made and where it was bottled – you might find that they are two different places. You also want to check the age. The higher the aging period, the bolder the flavors; this is because the longer the liquid stays in the barrel, the more flavors it absorbs from the wooden casks. 

As a member of Taster’s Club Bourbon of the Month Club, we not only deliver a premium bottle of bourbon each month right to your door, but we also send you a guide to your bourbon bottle that shares all kinds of interesting information about the bottle we curate for you. You’ll learn about the distillery, the inspiration behind the bourbon, tasting notes, and interesting factoids to share with your friends. 

Guide to Bourbon Tasting

Your bourbon tasting experience begins before you even pour your glass. First, it’s important to appreciate the color and body of bourbon in its bottle. Hold it up to the light and notice the depth of the shade – most are golden, copper or amber-colored. You’ll want to choose a glass with a wide mouth to enhance the aromas, and when you pour your bourbon, let it open up in your glass while you swish it around and admire it. 

When you’re ready to sip it, let the juice roll across your tongue before swallowing so that the flavors linger in your mouth for a few seconds. Then breathe out through your nose and mouth at the same time to get the full range of flavors. Notice if the bourbon offers spicy, sweet, earthy, oaky, or citrusy notes. You may even get different flavors in your second and third sips – almost like it’s alive on your palate. Bourbon isn’t for chugging, so savor each moment of the experience, and sip it slowly. 

There is no right or wrong way to drink bourbon, but be sure to taste it “neat” first. Then, feel free to experiment with other ways of sipping it: with a chunk of ice, a splash of water, or as the base of a cocktail. Check out some of these bourbon cocktail recipes perfect for sipping on your front porch.

If you want some more in-depth information on how to drink bourbon, check out our blog post. 

Guide to Bourbon Food Pairing

Bourbon can be sipped by itself or it can be paired with some foods. Every pairing can be done with complementing or contrasting flavors. In a complementary pairing, the flavors of the bourbon and the food melt into each other. In a contrasting pairing, you bring out flavors in the bourbon or food to create a new or unexpected flavor adding a layer of excitement to the tasting. 

For example, a sweet bourbon can be complemented by other sweet flavors like a chocolate bar or bowl of berries or a more complex dish like chocolate mousse or a fruit tart. But if you’re looking to contrast a bourbon’s sweetness, try more salty foods, like nuts, crackers, or fried chicken. 

Contrast is useful when pairing acids and salts. For example, the saltiness of the cheese, along with its lactic acid contrasts nicely with bourbon. It can also de-emphasize the peppery notes, letting in some of the lemon or citrus notes in the juice.

Below are a few food pairing ideas. 

  • Appetizers: Cheese and crackers are an easy appetizer to pair with bourbon. For something a tad fancier, try some smoked salmon, which tastes great with high rye bourbons. 
  • Meat: Grilled steak and salmon are excellent meat pairings. Try it with a side of bacon-wrapped sweet potatoes or a corn dish.
  • Desserts: Cookies and brownies compliment bourbons well, and they’re even better if you bake them yourself. It’s even more fun to sip bourbon while you’re baking! 

What foods do you enjoy pairing bourbon with?

The Best Bourbons to Try

If you’re not sure where to begin, Taster’s Club Bourbon Club members receive specially curated bottles each month in a variety of types. So you can try different selections and expand your palate. Link to Bourbons to Try blog post. 

Below are just a few of the best bourbons we’ve featured, and there’s more where this came from!

  • Barrell Bourbon Batch 027 Bourbon
  • Black Button Cask Strength Bourbon
  • Bull Run Cask Strength Straight Bourbon
  • Coppersea Excelsior Straight Bourbon
  • Eastside Distilling Buckman Reserve 10yr Bourbon
  • Lonely Oak Distillery Steeple Ridge Single Barrel Bourbon
  • Lucky 7 Jokester 6 yr Bourbon
  • Spirit Works Distillery Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength Private Barrel
  • Split Rock Organic Single Barrel Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey
  • Taconic Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Strength

In Summary…

If you enjoyed this guide to bourbon and you’d like to learn more, remember that each bottle we curate comes with a downloadable PDF that gives you all the inside information on the bottle, including distillery and tasting notes. We’d love to have you in the club, so we’ll see you there!

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