Types of Bourbon and the Best Ways to Enjoy Them
If you’re new to bourbon, you might not know much about this whiskey that’s very popular down south. In fact, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. Here, you’ll learn about what makes this spirit unique, the different types of bourbon, ideas for tasty bourbon cocktails, and ways to enjoy this classic American liquor.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is made exclusively in the US and aged in new, charred oak barrels (giving the spirit its distinct golden tone) for at least two years. It consists of a grain mixture of at least 51% corn, the rest being mainly rye, wheat, and barley. Distilled no stronger than 160 proof with no more than 62.5% alcohol when aged in the oak casks and 40% when bottled. Nothing except water can be added to bourbon, and this is at the end of distilling to get the desired proof. US distillers cannot legally use the name Straight Bourbon Whiskey on anything that doesn’t meet these requirements and is less than 80% alcohol by volume.
Types of Bourbon and Cocktails
There are a variety of types of bourbon:
Also known as Kentucky or traditional bourbon, corn is the most classic and common bourbon type you’ll find. It’s made from a grain mash of at least 70% corn, with the remainder being equal parts rye and barley. Corn bourbon is a great balance between sweet and spicy on the palate.
The corn in traditional bourbon and the new charred oak barrel aging process brings subtle undertones that are both sweet and smooth compared to other bourbon types. You’ll also get some level of spice, vanilla, and caramel and, sometimes, fruit, toffee, tobacco, tannin, or leather notes in corn bourbon.
If you’re a fan of the classic Moscow Mule, try the Kentucky Mule spinoff that subs vodka for bourbon. Fill a copper mug or highball glass with 2 ounces bourbon, a 1/2 ounce of lime juice, ice and ginger beer, and garnish with a sprig of mint.
Wheated bourbon is similar to corn or traditional bourbon, but its grain mash has wheat in it rather than rye, giving a sweeter flavor and softer burn as you taste the spirit. You’ll likely get smooth notes of grass, grain, and earth. Some say wheated bourbon smells of the great outdoors and tastes like honey on whole wheat bread – something pretty easy to enjoy.
For something a little different, try this winter ginger cocktail made with wheated bourbon, ginger syrup, lemon juice, bitters, and red wine.
High rye bourbon contains close to double the amount of rye and less corn than you’ll find in traditional corn bourbon, with almost no barley as well. The amount of rye in a high rye bourbon mash varies from distiller to distiller but is usually in the 20-35 percent ballpark. You’ll find it comes with a bigger, spicier bite than other types of bourbon and smells and tastes of baking, fruit, and grassy notes.
If you’re wondering what to mix with high rye bourbon, the best cocktails and highballs range from the classic rye and ginger ale to a Whiskey Sour with lemon and simple syrup.
High malt bourbon (also known as Tennessee high malt) is made in the same way as traditional bourbon but is composed of at least 51% malted barley, along with corn and malted rye. From that malted barley, you’ll of course get a malt flavor but also a smoky, nuttiness often with cocoa or chocolate, too.
If you’re looking to simply taste the flavor of a high malt, add a bit of still water to some or serve it over ice. But don’t be afraid to mix it up in a cocktail. High malt bourbon goes excellent with ginger, sweet vermouth, cola, Amaro, lemon, or soda water.
TENNESSEE SOUR MASH
Tennessee sour mash is made like the traditional corn bourbon but with an added twist: it also uses the previous batch’s leftovers (as done with the starter in sourdough bread) to achieve a different flavor – often sweeter and more intense.
STRAIGHT VS. BLENDED BOURBON
Tennessee (or Blended American) whiskey gets filtered through charcoal before aging. Though it can include corn and be similar to the traditional style, this is why many distillers differentiate this type of bourbon and call it blended.
How to Drink Different Types of Bourbon
You can enjoy bourbon in different ways: neat (as-is), on the rocks (over ice), or mixed into a cocktail. This, of course, comes down to personal preference, but the type of bourbon you’re using and other considerations will likely impact exactly how you decide to drink your bourbon.
- Proof: A 100-proof wheated bourbon can be excellent in cocktails, whereas an 80-proof high rye won’t stand out and is best sipped on the rocks.
- Age and aging process: some connoisseurs feel that wheated bourbon ages better and brings out more flavors faster the longer it ages, and high rye tends to bring out the barrel’s wood flavors more over time.
- Your own taste: Everyone has different taste, so see what you like for yourself and try a high rye and wheated bourbon neat, on the rocks, and mixed with ginger ale or your favorite cocktail.