If you’ve been searching for a reliable guide to bourbon, you’re going to find what you need here. Whether we’re schooling you anew or just pointing you in the right direction, you sure would get one healthy pour of knowledge today. Fair warning, though: the bourbon well runs deep. There’s always more to learn!
Give a man bourbon, and you have a friend. Teach a man bourbon, and you have a brother. (Yeah, we’re making up our own proverbs.) As an added bonus, you’ll get some advice, suggestions, and tips from our Super Seven bourbon enthusiasts. These bourbon-obsessed experts have kindly agreed to step to the front of the classroom. Let’s lend them our palates and spongy brains in hopes of soaking up all we can!
Consider them your professors. At least, they profess a crazy-cool love for America’s native spirit. They all drink and serve it on the regular—and you can follow them now! They’re making Instagram a better place, one beautiful bourbon-post at a time.
Gentlemen, thank you. For what you drink, what you know, and what you’re about to share.
Prestige Decanters Presents: The Ultimate Guide to Bourbon
Back to school has never felt so fine. Don’t worry. In the bourbon class, all subjects are tried-and-true fun. You don’t need books, calculators, or backpacks. You will need whiskey glasses and a snazzy, handcrafted whiskey decanter. That’s a sweet supply list, right?
A Guide to Bourbon has to begin with a spelling lesson
We’ll start off with a spelling lesson. Is it “whiskey” or “whisky?” Well, they’re both correct. Don’t you love it when the teacher says that? In the States, we usually prefer the E. If you travel to other parts of the world, they’ll omit the E. On plenty of menus around the globe, though, you’ll read it both ways, so take it as a possible clue regarding where the spirits hail from. Although, if we’re talking bourbon, it’s American (whiskey with an E) or bust.
Can you really call it a guide to bourbon without retelling a bit of bourbon history?
Raise your hand if you know how bourbon became “bourbon.” If you already know, you might skip ahead to bourbon math. If you don’t, here we go. There are conflicting opinions out there, but here’s what we’ve uncovered as the most likely truth. Bourbon got its name in honor of Bourbon County, Kentucky, the bourbon homestead back in the 1800s.
How did bourbon even come to be? Excellent question. It was needed. Yep, as much as we require our bourbon now, it was a necessity back in the day. I mean, can you imagine living without it? America’s European settlers obviously couldn’t either. They knew how to distill, thanks to their old world ways. But what would they distill here on new soil?
Bonus points if you already knew the answer: corn. The settlers discovered that the South was a prime place for growing healthy, sugary, dependable corn. And they went with it. So part of the beauty of bourbon is that it combines the old world tactics with a new world mash. Put this in your notes because there will be a quiz: Who were some of those early bourbon entrepreneurs? Try Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Jacob Beam.
Bourbon was the name of the game in the 19th century. Honestly, it was cheaper than all the imports at the time. Though it was vastly different than what we drink today, it was in high demand. Thirteen years of Prohibition slowed bourbon down significantly in the early 20th century. Later that very century, though, bourbon would hit the ground running again.
Well, a guide to bourbon should explain some basic bourbon math too
What do all the numbers mean? We’ll help you with the calculations. It’s really rather simple. Basically, the ABV x 2 = the proof. So, if you’re looking at 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), then you’ll be experiencing 80-proof. If you’re staring at 150-proof, then you’re looking into the dark, dreamy, cask-strength soul of bourbon (75% ABV). Most pedestrian bourbons are going to hover in that 40-43% ABV range. And if you were selecting the correct answer on your quiz, you’d know that range represents 80- to 86-proof.
How about some good ol’ bourbon school rules?
The bourbon school has rules, of course:
- Bourbon must be produced in the United States. (Purists cling to the American South and even Kentucky itself when declaring all that glorious corn as official “bourbon.”)
- The bottle in your hands won’t be anything lower than 80-proof (40% ABV). Further, you won’t see bourbon over 160-proof/80% ABV.
- Bourbon is always, always at least 51% corn. The other players in the fermented mash might be barley, rye, or wheat, in any combination.
- When it begins its journey in the barrel, bourbon must be stored at 125-proof or less.
- Bourbon is charred in new oak containers. (This is different than Scotch whisky. Its barrels have contained other wines, ports, whiskeys, etc. in the past.)
- As the distiller proofs the whiskey for the bottles you’ll come to love and respect, water is the only additive that may be employed to alter the ABV. So, you got it: no coloring or flavoring in the good stuff.
You can’t complete a guide to bourbon without mentioning the science class of bourbon making
Now you know the rules, but still, how is bourbon actually made?
The special place of KY water in the making of bourbon
The reason so many quality bourbons come from Kentucky is because of their quality water. (Okay, so this is a little bourbon geography lesson, too.) We’re not kidding. That state’s water filters through a heap of limestone. Along the limestone leg of the journey, Kentucky’s water is collecting calcium, which brings out those sweet bourbon notes you know and love. Limestone also kicks away iron, which is awesome, since iron makes bourbon taste bitter. That just ain’t right, and Kentucky knows it. All that to say, your water source truly matters.
Even the grain itself goes through a series of rigorous inspection
When grain is delivered, bourbon makers examine it for mold, bacteria, grain mill cogs, etc. They put it through multiple rounds of scrutiny. You don’t want to ruin your bourbon before you even start with the true, down-home, age-old magic. Hygiene is important, and there’s no skipping this foundational step. The corn and other grains are then crushed and cleaned.
There’s also a special sequence for cooking the grains
The corn kernels have to be broken because the key factor (starch) lies within. Next, that corn is mixed with boiling quality water in a cooker. Then the other grains are added. Usually, distilleries have a sequence for “the cook,” and they stick with it. And there you have it: your mash.
Then there’s the fundamental process of fermentation
Ah, fermentation, where yeast is the star. In the mashing process, yeast consumes all the sugars and produces heat, CO2, and alcohol. Damn, don’t you just love nature? After a few days, that yeast is going crazy with all the sugar. It’s bubbling, and there’s a grain cap that forms as a top layer, which essentially locks in all the beer-y goodness below. After three days, the fermented beer makes its way through a filtering process.
The distilling process goes on and on to purge the impurities
Alcohol, of course, has a low boiling point. Bourbon makers heat the mash to that magic number, and the alcohol vaporizes. While the mash and water keep rolling along, that alcohol vapor is collected and condensed, and it’s dubbed “low wine.” It’s super grungy at this point with all the corn oil. The low wine then makes its way into a pot still where it’s re-distilled. More impurities are removed, and the vapors are collected and condensed again. Now you have “high wine.”
Before heading to the barrels, the spirit then travels to a tank. It’s certainly over 125-proof at this point, so more quality water is added to tone down the alcohol. You know the rules.
Then there’s a meticulous procedure to barreling and aging the whiskey
Slow-growing American white oak is ideal for bourbon barrels. The bourbon oak staves go into a kiln, where they’ll dry for about sixty days. Moisture can’t be allowed to move through the joints once there’s bourbon in there, so all the staves have to fit together perfectly. Once assembled, the barrels are then steamed (softened) and pulled together tightly. Next, the inside is burned to an “alligator char.” It basically looks like charcoal on the inside. Heads are placed on top, and the barrel’s signature hoops are driven in. Finally, the pressure test is given, and any leaks are repaired.
The barrel is the most expensive part of making bourbon. A new oak barrel costs about 150 bucks, and many big-name distilleries are taking on over 100,000 of these barrels per year. It’s quite an investment in the future. And, that’s because they won’t even sell the goods for another three to twenty-three years. It’s something to think about the next time you’re enjoying your bourbon. A lot of earth, chemistry, and love for upcoming generations of bourbon drinkers go into this craft!
Finally, the barrels of liquor find their way into the warehouse
The barreled whiskey then rests in a warehouse where it’s exposed to the seasonal elements. It’s going to breathe and evolve. A lot of people think it’s Mother Nature and her fluctuating temperatures that are key in this process. It is, in fact, the barometric pressure that makes the difference.
The whiskey has some fun as it warms up, pushing its way through wood and char. The volume in the barrel actually drops because water seeps out through the wood. Water molecules are tiny, folks. (Side note: In reality, after six or seven years in the barrel, you’ve lost 50 percent of the original contents. Whoa!)
The alcohol molecules are larger, so they hang around. The barrel continues to pull in air from the warehouse; the whiskey keeps working its voodoo. It’s continuing to move in and out of the wood, taking with it all the barrel’s sap, rosin, and char. Talk about flavor! No barrel tastes like another. Sure, the barrels are placed at different levels to extract certain chemical flavors from the wood. But even barrels side by side on the same level often taste different. That’s just the cold, hard, beautiful bourbon truth.
Could you believe that bourbon has its own language arts too?
A little bourbon lingo for you.
- Single Barrel: These particular bottles come from only one barrel. They’re never a blend of many. Even in the same brand, flavors vary because they’re coming from distinct barrels with unique wood and char.
- Small Batch: With small batch, there’s more freedom to experiment and more variations with flavors. You’re not dependent on a single barrel but a number of select barrels and their contents. Small batches are produced in smaller quantities. Look closely and you’ll see notes regarding the batch and even barrel numbers on the bottle itself.
- Cask Strength: So, typically bourbon is cut with distilled water to proof it for the masses. Even though bourbons go into the barrel at 125-proof, that alcohol level rises over time. (You know why. We’ve already discussed it.) You’ll also hear cask strength referred to as “barrel proof,” and here’s why: these bourbons come straight from the barrel. They’re the ghost peppers of the bourbon world; they’re often spicy from all that char. They burn you in the best of ways.
Getting to experience bourbon in real time
You’ve heard of the big ones, such as Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Elijah Craig, Maker’s Mark, and Jim Beam, just to name a few. During our Bourbon for Beginners article, we highlighted some starter bourbons, and we wanted to share details about those recommendations here. Want some riskier (or friskier!) bourbon recommendations? Check out our upcoming piece regarding different bourbons you can try.
A few recommendations on old faithful & some bourbons for beginners (from the super seven)
@whiskeymoments: Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace
“None of these are too expensive, and each brings its own punch while you savor the taste. Each also has variations to challenge your taste buds.”
@chicagobourbon: Basil Hayden’s, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark
“Buffalo Trace is one of the bourbons that got me hooked. It’s a consistent flavor that punches way above its price point.”
He also notes that Basil Hayden’s is very approachable; and that Maker’s Mark was one of his first bourbon love. With wheat, as its second ingredient, it’s soft and sweet.
“It’s easy to enjoy neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail.”
@bourbontraveler: Elijah Craig Small Batch, Maker’s Mark, and Four Roses Small Batch
“If somebody naive in drinking bourbon neat tries to go all-in with a cask strength, it’s going to be such a turn-off they may just give up on bourbon completely.”
He recommends these because they’re available in almost every liquor store at a reasonable price (at or below $30). He further notes the differences in his selections: Maker’s Mark is sweet and smooth with its wheat. Elijah Craig is high in corn (in the 70 percent range) but rounded out with rye and barley. Four Roses, however, dials up the rye to 20-35 percent, bringing that spicy kick and teaching newbies how different bourbons can taste.
@chsbourbon: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch, and Booker’s Bourbon
Landon gives us a stellar history-drenched note when he says,
“Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch is another Buffalo Trace product, but it’s bottled in bond. The Bottled in Bond Act is important in bourbon, and this is the perfect bottle associated with the act. If you have some extra cash, go for the single barrel. The whole E.H. Taylor line is awesome.”
As for Booker’s, he says,
“I think it’s important for people to understand bourbon in its purest form, without the water in it. This is a good place to start.”
@steelespeakeasy: I.W. Harper 15, Elijah Craig Small Batch, and Ezra Brooks 7
“I’d recommend different bourbons for a beer drinker, versus a wine drinker, or vodka drinker, so on and so forth. But generally, I’d recommend a four-to-eight year bourbon around 90-proof. Bourbon can be a bit ‘hot’ to a new palate. I.W. Harper 15-Year is actually a great entry point because it’s low proof and sweet from its aging in the oak barrel. Tastes like caramel-vanilla goodness. Its decanter bottle is also very pretty, something PD can appreciate.”
Yes, sir. We can and do. Steele goes on to say,
“Elijah Craig Small Batch is another good one. This used to be an age-stated twelve-year bourbon. Now it’s probably around eight years old with some young and old stuff mixed in. But it’s still very good and a nice, easy-sipping whiskey. Ezra Brooks 7-Year is also a fine bourbon for starters, as is Heaven Hill 6-Year and Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond. All three of those are less than $25 and decent.”
@bourbonbanter: Basil Hayden’s, Elijah Craig Small Batch, and Maker’s Mark
“For a long time, I’ve recommended Basil Hayden’s as a great starter bourbon. It’s bottled at 80-proof, making it approachable, but it’s made of a high-rye bourbon mash bill. So, it still has a bit of spice to it that makes it interesting. From there, I usually introduce people to Elijah Craig Small Batch. It’s made from a more traditional bourbon mash bill and full of traditional bourbon flavors of vanilla, caramel, and oak. Then I would have to recommend Maker’s Mark. Maker’s is a classic brand that helped bring the bourbon industry back to life. Who doesn’t know the brand immediately, with its bright red wax dripping down the bottle? Enjoying a few pours of Maker’s Mark will help round out a newbie’s experience with the three main mash bills that make up most of the bourbons available today. Once they’ve tried them all, they can decide which they like best.”
He tells us all to keep exploring!
@brewsandbourbon: Eagle Rare from Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams Single Barrel from Heaven Hill, and Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey
All of Zach’s picks hang around $30, and he says,
“These make a great launching pad into the delicious world of bourbon. Eagle Rare from Buffalo Trace is a ten-year bourbon from a world-class distillery. It’s lower proof with great flavor. Evan Williams Single Barrel from Heaven Hill is one of my top-three value bourbons on the shelf. Each one is a little different from the last (as with all single barrel bourbons), but the quality is always high and the taste is never disappointing, despite a sub-90 proof bottling. Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey is a sweet, smooth, and oh-so-drinkable pour. Though it’s not technically bourbon (aged in prior bourbon barrels instead of new oak), it brings a softer taste profile. That with the low proof (83.4) makes it more palatable for newcomers.”
He also gives “runners-up points” to Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10-Year Bottled in Bond, as well as Maker’s Mark.
Well, bourbon requires a bit of physical education class too
Now for some physical bourbon education. How do you drink bourbon? Bourbon lovers tend to prefer it neat (without ice), but you can also have it on the rocks (with ice) or with a few drops of water to taste. You can even try it in a cocktail.
What does bourbon actually taste like? Well, you’ll likely encounter those caramel and vanilla notes. It’s a sweet game, too, with all the corn. If you go high-rye, you’ll be hit with some dry spice. If you swing toward barley, you’ll pick up hints of toasty nutmeg. With added wheat, you’ll indulge in warm bread, tenderly drizzled with honey.
If you’re after something like Pappy’s but don’t want to dip into your savings, try this trick. You know you’re always getting at least 51 percent corn, and usually, the secondary grains are barley and rye. Pappy’s goes for wheat instead of rye, though, so opt for similar mashes. And, really, that’s how you play the game. Enjoy, but study the mash. This will help you find your best-beloved, favorite bourbon.
At last, some fancy bourbon happy hour recommendations
Wait, happy hour is a subject? Yep, in bourbon school it is. Here, we just wanted to mention a few cocktails and make you privy to a couple of unique recipes. We asked our Super Seven to make some suggestions. Discover recipes all over the web and even on our Prestige Decanters blog!
@whiskeymoments: Hot Toddy
@chicagobourbon: Old Fashioned
- Check out our blog article Favorite Old Fashioned Drink Recipe Ideas!
@bourbontraveler: Old Fashioned and Kentucky Mule
@chsbourbon: Mint Julep and Old Fashioned
- Check out our blog article Mint Julep Recipe – Best Bourbons & Mint Julep Alternatives!
@steelespeakeasy: Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, Kentucky Mule, and Gold Rush
@bourbonbanter: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Horse Neck
- Check out our blog article 5 Bourbon Drink Recipes You Will Love & Crave!
@brewsandbourbon: Bourbon Blackberry Lemonade
|Bourbon Blackberry Lemonade Recipe
Courtesy of @brewsandbourbon and his good bourbon friend, Brandon
● 1.5 oz. of a low-rye bourbon (e.g. Buffalo Trace)
● 3 oz. lemonade
● 1.5 oz. cran-blackberry juice
● 3 blackberries
● 2 mint leaves
Add blackberries, mint leaves, and bourbon to a shaker with ice, and shake for 30 seconds to release juice from berries and open up mint leaves. Then add lemonade to shaker, and shake for another 10 seconds. Strain the concoction into a fresh 8oz. rock glass filled with ice. Pour cran-blackberry juice on top. Enjoy!
Class Dismissed (Not Really)
Okay, so our ultimate guide to bourbon class is over… for now. As we said, there’s so much to take in–historically, figuratively, and quite literally. Keep coming back for more. In the meantime, check out NEAT: The Story of Bourbon. It’s a documentary available on both Hulu and Amazon. It actually features Steele Speakeasy (@steelespeakeasy) a bit, along with a lot of other cool things – all bourbon related, of course.
We’d like you to also see our piece on Bourbons to Try. There, we’ll dive into the best bourbons under fifty bucks, lesser-known bourbons you’ve maybe never heard of, and more!
Curious about something else in the long American tradition of bourbon? Post your question below. We might just tackle it in a future article!