There are a lot of bourbon drinkers out in the world, but few too many actually know what goes into their bourbon… it’s just bourbon. Well, there are many different types of bourbon with different mashbills, and there are many labels on a bottle of bourbon that signify different things.
Being able to differentiate what you like from what you don’t starts with knowing the differences between all the different types of bourbon. We’re going to cover all their differences and some of the indicators on labels and what they mean.
What is Bourbon? Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Before we jump into the specific bourbons available out there, let’s talk about regular old bourbon. First, bourbon is whiskey. Check out my guide to all the different types of whiskey below.
There are legal requirements that must be met for a whiskey to be classified as a bourbon. The basics are just this: Bourbon is a whiskey made in America that uses at least 51% corn in the mashbill. Like I said, these are the basics. let’s touch upon everything that makes bourbon, bourbon.
- Bourbon must be produced in America (most bourbon comes from Kentucky, but anywhere in the US works)
- The mashbill must be at least 51% corn
- Bourbon must not be distilled any higher than 160 proof
- Bourbon must be aged in American new charred oak barrels (there is no age requirement, it must only spend time in said barrels)
- Bourbon must not enter the barrels any higher than 125 proof (it can come out higher than 125 proof, it just can’t enter the barrels for aging at over 125 proof)
- Bourbon must be bottled at or above 80 proof
- Water is the only thing that can be added to bourbon. No coloring, flavoring, or other additives can added
If a whiskey meets all the above requirements, it can then be classified as bourbon…. but that’s the most basic level. What about the other kinds of bourbon?
To read more about the actual regulations governing bourbon, head over to Talks on Law to read from someone more qualified than me regarding American law.
Label Indicators on Bourbon
If you’re browsing the liquor store for a new bottle of bourbon, one of the easiest ways to determine what you’re working with is by reading the label. Alcohol is a fairly regulated industry, so the bottle can tell you a lot. Let’s talk about all the different labels on bourbon and what they indicate.
Most bourbon you come across will be labeled as a ‘straight’ bourbon. Essentially it means this:
- Straight bourbon must be aged a minimum of 2 years in new charred American oak barrels
- Straight bourbons can be batched together, but the whiskey must come from the same state (if not from the same state, you’ll see it labeled as ‘a blend of straight bourbons’ or something similar. but we’ll cover more on that soon)
You’ll also see the word ‘straight’ attached to whiskey. Essentially it means the same thing as above, except for a non-bourbon. Straight also means that a whiskey cannot have additives (bourbon can’t have additives regardless of whether its labeled as straight or not).
Bottled in Bond Bourbon
Another label you may see often is Bottled-in-Bond. Bottled in Bond, or BiB, is a label for only American produced bourbons and whiskeys. A BiB bourbon must clear all the requirements of standard bourbon, and then be the following:
- Must be produced at a single distillery, in a single distillation season, under a single master distiller
- Must be aged a minimum of 4 years at a federally bonded warehouse
- Must be bottled at 100 proof
Bottled in Bond became a stamp of quality after the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 was passed. The act was passed to ensure the quality of a whiskey at a time when any yuppie could make whiskey and sell it.
Small Batch Bourbon
Small Batch bourbon will often come with some extra money attached to the price tag. For example, there’s George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey which is their base offering, and for some extra money, you can get their small batch barrel select offering.
Every barrel of bourbon is a little bit different, yet when you buy a bottle of whiskey, it tastes the same time and time again. That’s because distilleries batch together hundreds of barrels of whiskey in order to create a consistent profile.
Small batch bourbon means that only a small number of barrels were batched together. The profile of small batch bourbons will vary, and they often use some of their better barrels making it more rich.
One downside to small batch bourbon is that there aren’t really any regulations governing what is small batch. For example, Larceny is a small batch bourbon but they still use “less than one hundred” barrels. Most small batch offerings will be closer to 10 or so barrels.
Single Barrel Bourbon
Single barrel bourbon is a step up from small batch. Now if you haven’t guessed it by no, the whiskey inside single barrel bourbon comes from one single barrel. This means you’ll get a lot of variation between bottles of single barrel bourbon.
For example, if we’re both drinking Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, we may have a very different experience because it’s likely that our bottles contain whiskey that came from a different barrel.
Single barrel expressions also use some of their better, if not their best, barrels, so the bourbon inside is likely much more rich and creamy than their standard offerings.
Blended often has a negative connotation in the world of bourbon and whiskey. However, blended bourbon and whiskey is often delicious, you just need to know the ones to stay away from.
Blended bourbon typically means that bourbon from multiple distilleries, in the same state of different states, with different mashbills are blended together.
All whiskey in a blended bourbon is bourbon, but I’d recommend you look for the ‘straight’ classification, so you know that it’s a blend of straight bourbon.
Blended whiskey is something to watch out for. Kentucky deluxe is an example. It is a blended whiskey, but it contains only 20% straight bourbon. The other 80% is vodka. Yet it still gets to classify as whiskey because the regulations behind whiskey are a lot more lax than the regulations behind bourbon.
Another way to classify the different types of bourbon is by their mashbill. There is high-rye bourbon, wheated bourbon, and four-grain bourbon. There are others as bourbon can be made from any grain, but these will be the main ones you see.
The most typical bourbon mashbill looks something like this: 70-80% corn, 10-20% rye, 6-12% malted barley.
When a bourbon steers from this general mashbill, it may be noted – either by people in general speaking terms, or by the actual label itself.
Almost all of these labels or types of bourbon above and below can be partnered with each other. You can have a high-rye single barrel straight bourbon, a straight, small batch wheated bourbon.
Rye is the second most prevalent grain used in bourbon. Not always, but most bourbon uses rye as the accent grain. As mentioned, the rye content of a bourbon is usually ~15%.
Well once you get up to the 18-20% rye content, bourbon may begin to approach the high-rye category. Often times when a bourbon is labeled as high rye, you’ll see closer to 30%+ rye in the mash. Redemption High-Rye Bourbon is a good example of this.
Woodford Reserve contains 18% rye, Bulleit contains 28% rye, Four Roses, Old Grandad both contain 20%+. If you like those bourbons, perhaps you should explore more high rye bourbon options.
As we mentioned, when a bourbon strays from the general path, it’ll be noted – by the bottle of by drinkers. Wheated bourbon is an example of that.
A bourbon typically uses 3 grains. it’s always 51%+ corn, usually a small amount of malted barely for its enzymes during the fermentation and distillation processes, and then either rye or wheat – usually rye. When the accent grain, 2nd most prevalent grain, is wheat, it becomes known as wheated bourbon.
Four Grain Bourbon
Bourbon does not always use three grains. Sometimes they use four. When a bourbon is labeled as a four grain bourbon, it essentially means it uses corn, rye, wheat, and malted barely. There are other grains that can be used, such as oats, but four grain bourbon is most commonly referred to in conjunction with the four major grains.
BOURBON AGE STATEMENT
Now, the age of bourbon doesn’t necessarily classify as a ‘type’ of bourbon, except for straight bourbon, but it’s something to talk about.
ANY bourbon or American produced whiskey MUST contain an age statement IF the whiskey in the bottle has been aged for LESS than 4 years.
IF you scour a bottle of bourbon looking for an age statement and there’s not one there, then the bourbon has been aged 4+ years. This is known as a No Age Statement Bourbon (NAS).
If a bottle chooses to display an age statement i.e. Bib & Tucker 6 Year Bourbon, then every barrel of whiskey that was batched together must have been a minimum of 6 years.
Types of Bourbon Summary
As a note, in this article I’ve attempted to give you as much information as possible about the most prevalent mashbills and labels and types of bourbon out there as a starting point. There are many different things you’ll see such as cask strength or barrel proof, double oak, etc… but
Bourbon is bourbon. You don’t need to classify every single bourbon as something deeper, BUT the more you know the better.
If you love Maker’s Mark, and you know it’s a wheated bourbon, you can explore more wheated bourbons. If a friend or family member loves Bulleit, maybe you can gift them another high-rye bourbon to try.
Perhaps you like Four Roses, but you want to try a nicer bottle… get Four Roses Small Batch. I don’t like Jack Daniel’s at all by itself, but their single barrel is pretty good.
You don’t need to know everything, or even anything, about what you’re drinking. The important thing is to drink what you like. Learning about what you like, though, will only help you find more things you like. Similarly, learning about what you don’t like will help you stay away from it.
If Bourbon is something you’re interested in learning about, then you can take it a step further. Learn about why a certain mashbill brings a certain flavor. Learn about the different production styles, barrels and aging processes. And do that all here with me!