Bourbon Basics: From Barrel to Bottle

by Karin Mosca


We’ve all heard of bourbon, and many of us enjoy its caramel, buttery, spicy and smoky flavour. But do we really know what it is? If someone asked you to tell the difference between bourbon and whisky, would you know the answer? In this article, we’ll get to grips with the basics of bourbon, including its characteristics, how and where it’s made, and the differences between whisky and bourbon.

What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whisky?

The answer’s quite simple: ‘whisky’ is the generic term for spirits obtained from the fermentation and distillation of grains. Bourbon, on the other hand, is a specific type of whisky that can only be produced in the United States and which must have some very particular characteristics.

The Characteristics of Bourbon

Bourbon has its own specification, which was officially recognised by the US Congress in 1964. In order for a whiskey to be called bourbon, it must meet the following requirements:

  • It must be produced in the United States.
  • The initial mash must contain at least 51% corn. The remainder is malted barley, wheat and/or rye.
  • No additives may be added to the mixture. Only water may be added.
  • The raw distillate obtained from distillation must not exceed 80% alcohol by volume.
  • At the time of ageing, the distillate must not exceed 62% alcohol by volume.
  • It must be aged in new, fully toasted oak casks.

Straight Bourbon and Kentucky Bourbon

What’s the difference between a straight bourbon and Kentucky bourbon? The difference is fairly straightforward. Straight Bourbon is a bourbon that has been aged for at least two years. Kentucky Bourbon, on the other hand, is a bourbon that has been distilled and aged for at least one year in Kentucky.

bourbon barrels

Bourbon Barrels

As mentioned, bourbon must be aged in new barrels. This means that once a barrel has already been used, it can no longer contain bourbon. Normally, used barrels are sent to other countries, where they are used to age various spirits and liqueurs.

Another important thing to know is that if the bourbon is aged for a period of less than four years, then it must be labelled with the length of ageing.

When was Bourbon Born?

Legend has it that the Reverend Elijah Craig invented American bourbon in 1789, and more precisely the ageing method in charred barrels. There are, however, several stories about the birth of this spirit. One version claims that a fire burnt the barrels where the Reverend kept his spirits, giving the spirit a surprisingly pleasant taste. A second version of the story claims that the reverend used wooden barrels previously used to store fish to age his whiskey, which he had charred to remove the stench.

A third and less original version claims that because there is no peat in the southern United States, which is used in the production of Scotch, American whiskey producers tried to reproduce a similar smoking process by toasting the barrels.

Where does the Name Bourbon Come From?

The inspiration for the name is not known for certain. Some say it comes from Bourbon County in Kentucky, where bourbon first saw the light of day, while others believe it comes from New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, a street full of bars and clubs where bourbon was served as the inexpensive alternative to French cognac. Either way, both are named after the French Bourbon dynasty. The name bourbon, however, was not adopted until 1850.

Where is Bourbon Produced?

According to specifications, bourbon can be distilled throughout the United States, although it is currently only produced in six states: Kentucky, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Georgia. Of these, it is Kentucky that wins the undisputed title of king of bourbon whiskey.


And now that you’ve got to grips with the basics of bourbon, all that’s left to do is to go to Drinks&Co and find out which is your favourite!

Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Karin Mosca’s original Italian article: Bourbon: tutto ciò che devi sapere.

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