Bourbon is very popular not only in the US but also all across the world. There are actually 12 different types of bourbon, with many fitting into more than one category. Don’t worry if that sounds complicated as in this article I’ve simplified everything.
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1. Standard Bourbon
Standard bourbons are those that meet the legal minimum criteria for being bourbon, which are:
- They must be made in the United States of America.
- They must be made from at least 51% corn.
- They must be distilled to no more than 80%ABV.
- They must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
- They must be placed in the barrel at no more than 62.5%ABV.
- They must be bottled at a minimum of 40%ABV.
Since all bourbons must meet these legal requirements, it means that all bourbons are standard bourbons – though most meet additional criteria to fit into some of the other categories of bourbon too.
Some of the most popular bourbon brands are:
- Maker’s Mark
- Jim Beam
- Woodford Reserve
- Evan Williams
- Basil Hyden
- Buffalo Trace
- Four Roses
- Angel’s Envy
- Knob Creek
- Wild Turkey
- Elijah Craig
- Eagle Rare
- Old Forester
- Pappy Van Winkle
2. Kentucky Bourbon
Bourbon is historically associated with Kentucky, which is presumably why many people think that it has to be made there. However, that is incorrect. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States.
Kentucky bourbon, however, must be made in Kentucky.
Most bourbons are made in Kentucky – including all the brands mentioned above. However, there are plenty of bourbons that are not made in Kentucky, for example:
- Balcones Texas Straight Bourbon Whisky – made in Texas
- Widow Jane 10 Years – made in New York
- John J. Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon – made in Virginia
- Journeyman Featherbone Bourbon – made in Michigan
- Remus Repeal Reserve Bourbon – made in Indiana
- Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon – made in Nevada
- Kings County Straight Bourbon – made in New York
- FEW Straight Bourbon – made in Illinois
- Woodinville Straight Bourbon – made in Washington
- 291 Small Batch Colorado Bourbon – made in Colorado
- Cedar Ridge Reserve Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – made in Iowa
3. Straight Bourbon
Bourbon has no legal minimum aging period, but if it’s aged for more than two years it becomes straight bourbon.
And since it’s generally accepted that the optimum age for bourbons is four years, it’s not surprising that most bourbons – including those mentioned above, are straight bourbons. There are of course some ‘young bourbons’ that are worth trying, for example:
- Rock Town Arkansas Young Bourbon Whiskey – 8 months
- Horned Hare Young Bourbon Whiskey – less than 1 year
- Sourland Mountain Bourbon Whiskey – 1 Year
- Hunter & Scott Bourbon Whiskey – 1½ years
There are also some young bourbons that while not technically straight may nevertheless be considered as if they were. Cleveland Underground Bourbon Whiskey is put into a proprietary pressure-cooker-like device where a vacuum is created, and oxygen-rich air is pumped in to force the liquid through grains of wood over and over again. After only 24 hours the bourbon is fully aged.
4. Sour Mash Bourbon
Sour mash bourbon is bourbon made using the sour mash process. This is when a small amount of fermented mash from a previous batch is used with the new batch to jump start the process and prevent the growth of bacteria that could taint the bourbon. It also improves the consistency and quality of the bourbon and ensures that every bottle tastes as similar as possible.
Most bourbons are made using the sour mash process even if they aren’t labeled as ‘sour mash’ but there are some sweet mash bourbons. To be sweet mash bourbon you don’t have to do anything apart from not be a sour mash bourbon.
Sweet mash bourbons are more open to issues of contamination but that problem is solved with higher standards of cleanliness.
Some sweet mash bourbons are:
- Wilderness Trail Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Peerless Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Castle & Key Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Bankhall Sweet Mash Bourbon Whiskey
- Woodford Reserve Sweet Mash Redux Kentucky Bourbon
5. High Rye Bourbon
As mentioned above, bourbon is made from at least 51% corn while the rest of the mash bill is a combination of other grains – typically malted barley as well as rye and / or wheat.
If the rest of the mash bill is 20% – 35% rye (it’s usually closer to 15%) it can be called high rye bourbon. The additional rye gives the bourbon a spicier bite.
The following table shows some high rye bourbons and their mash bills:
|FEW Straight Bourbon Whiskey||70%||20%||10%|
|Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey||72%||22%||6%|
|Rabbit Hole Heigold Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey High Rye||70%||25%||5%|
|Old Grand-Dad Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey||63%||27%||10%|
|New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey||65%||30%||5%|
|Redemption High Rye Bourbon||60%||36%||4%|
|Deadwood Tumblin’ Dice 4-Year Bourbon||60%||36%||4%|
Some high rye bourbons are a mixture of two mash bills, one with more rye than usual and another with a lot more rye than usual. For example, Four Roses Small Batch Select has two mash bills, one that’s 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley and another that’s 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley.
6. Wheated Bourbon
Similarly, wheated bourbon, has more wheat than rye in the rest (i.e. the non-at least 51% corn part) of the mash bill. This gives it a sweeter and softer flavor.
The following table shows some wheated bourbons and their mash bills:
|Wyomnig Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey||68%||20%||12%|
|McKenzie Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon Whiskey||70%||20%||10%|
|Rebel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey||68%||20%||12%|
|Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey||68%||20%||12%|
|New Riff Red Turkey Wheated Bourbon||65%||35%|
|Redemption Wheated Bourbon||51%||45%||4%|
|Old Elk Straight Wheated Bourbon||51%||45%||4%|
7. Single Barrel Bourbon
Most bourbons are a blend of several different barrels. That’s because although one distillery has one way of producing a particular bourbon, since there are slight differences in the cask and storage, every barrel will taste slightly different. In order for a bourbon to have a consistent flavor, different versions of itself from different barrels need to be mixed together until it tastes like it’s supposed to.
On the other hand, single barrel bourbons are bourbons from one barrel only and are special precisely because of their slightly different and unique flavors.
Some single barrel bourbons are:
- Jim Beam Single Barrel
- Knob Creek Single Barrel Select Bourbon
- Evan Williams Single Barrel
- E.H. Taylor. JR. Single Barrel
- Blanton’s Single Barrel
- Four Roses Single Barrel
- Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel
- Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel
- Old Forester Single Barrel 100 Proof
- 1792 Single Barrel
8. Cask Strength / Barrel Proof Bourbon
As mentioned, bourbon must be bottled at no less than 40%ABV, but it’s often bottled at higher ABVs such as 43%, 45%, 47% or 50%. This is possible because it’s placed into the casks at a much higher ABV (up to 62.5%) and then diluted with water before being bottled.
Cask strength or barrel proof bourbon isn’t diluted so it retains the higher ABV of the cask. And if you’re wondering why people like something with such a high ABV it’s because alcohol carries flavor compounds. That means bourbon with a higher ABV will have more intense, richer and concentrated flavors.
Some cask strength or barrel proof bourbons are:
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- Bulleit Barrel Strength Whiskey
- E.H. Taylor. JR. Barrel Proof
- Benchmark Full Proof
- Angel’s Envy Cask Strength
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
- W.L. Weller Full Proof
- TX Barrel Proof Bourbon
- 1792 Full Proof
- Wyoming Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey
9. Small Batch Bourbon
There are no regulations to define small batch bourbon which is why it can mean several different things. It could mean bourbon made from a limited quantity of the mash bill or a bourbon made from a limited pot still run. Most often it means bourbon made from specific barrels that were aged separately.
The common denominator is that they are all exclusive in some way.
Some small batch bourbons are:
- Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch – from less than 200 barrels
- E.H. Taylor. JR. Small Batch – from selected barrels
- Benchmark Small Batch – from selected barrels
- Four Roses Small Batch – from four original bourbon recipes
- Jefferson’s Very Small Batch – from up to four whiskeys
- Widow Jane Lucky Thirteen Small Batch Bourbon – from a handful of barrels
10. Bottled in Bond or Bonded Bourbon
Bottled in bond or bonded bourbon is bourbon that meets the additional criteria of the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act – one of the first federal government regulations to protect the standards of American whiskey. Bottled in bond bourbon must be:
- Distilled in the same season by the same distiller in a single distillery.
- Aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse.
- Bottled at 50% ABV.
Some bottled-in-bond bourbons are:
- Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond
- Benchmark Bonded
- Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond
- Old Forester 1897 Bottled in Bond Whisky
- TX Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon
- 1792 Bottled in Bond
11. Blended Bourbon
As mentioned above, unless it’s from a single barrel all bourbon is mixed with different versions of itself from other barrels. However, that doesn’t make it a blended bourbon. Blended bourbons are a mixture of two (or more) different bourbons.
Some blended bourbons are:
- Three Chord Blended Bourbon – a mix of bourbons from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee
- Fistful of Bourbon – a blend of five straight bourbons
- High West American Prairie Bourbon – a blend of 2 to 13-year-old barrels from Indiana, Utah, and elsewhere
- Widow Jane Aged 10 Years – Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee bourbons are blended in small batches (no more than five barrels)
- Smooth Ambler Contradiction Bourbon – a blend of 9 year old high-rye bourbon and 2 year old wheated bourbon
- Pursuit United Bourbon – from 40 barrels from three different states
- Barrell Bourbon Batch 030 – a blend of 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, and 15-year-old bourbons that were bottled at barrel proof
12. Tennessee Whiskey
There’s actually a lot of debate as to whether Tennessee whiskey is bourbon or not. That’s because on the one hand it fulfills all the criteria for being bourbon but on the other hand many of those who produce it say it’s not bourbon but Tennessee whiskey.
Tennessee whiskey must meet the same criteria as that of bourbon but in addition must be:
- Made in the state of Tennessee.
- Undergo the Lincoln County Process – filtering through charcoal.
Now you may think that since Tennessee whiskey is just bourbon made in Tennessee that’s been charcoal filtered, there’s not much of a difference between them after all. Or you may think that the Lincoln County Process is the extra step that makes Tennessee whiskey everything bourbon is and more.
Either way, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of picking a side in this hotly contested debate. So, check out one the following Tennessee whiskey / Tennessee whiskey bourbon (delete as appropriate) brands and decide for yourself.
- Jack Daniel’s
- George Dickel
- Chattanooga Whiskey
- Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey
- Uncle Nearest
- Rollins Tennessee Whiskey