What is bourbon and how is it different from other types of whisky?

Selection of Bourbon

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, distilled from a mash made primarily of corn. Despite it’s popularity, the spirit remains a mystery to many. So how is it defined, and what else does the beginner need to know? Here are 10 bourbon FAQs to get you started on ‘America’s Native Spirit’.

Photography: David Anderson.

Bourbon FAQ:

  1. Does it have to be made in Kentucky?
  2. Can it be made outside of America?
  3. What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
  4. Which one should I start with?
  5. Where does the name bourbon come from?
  6. Is bourbon matured?
  7. What is bottled-in-bound?
  8. Is it recognised as whisky in the EU?
  9. What does bourbon taste like?
  10. Is it good for cocktails?

1. Does it have to be made in Kentucky?

Bourbon is so intrinsically linked to the ‘Bluegrass State’ that it’s easy to think the spirit is exclusively made there. What’s more, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, 95 per cent of the world’s supply comes from Kentucky. The reality is, however, that it can be produced anywhere in America, and new bourbon distillers are cropping up across the country all the time.

2. Can it be made outside of America?

No, the federal standards governing the identity of bourbon dictate that it is a ‘distinctive product of the United States’ and that ‘the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whiskey or whiskey-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States’.

3. What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, its mash (the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled) must contain at least 51 per cent corn. The mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less, the distillate must be stored in charred new oak barrels at 125 proof or less, and it must not contain any additives.

Buffalo Trace and Blanton's bourbon
Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s, two classic examples of bourbon

4. Which one should I start with?

Bourbon’s varied flavours and storied heritage make it a drink worth exploring. With so much room for exploration, it can be somewhat difficult to know where to start. To help you along, we’ve picked four classic bourbon serves and designated two bourbons to each.

5. Where does the name bourbon come from?

The origins of the name bourbon are extremely uncertain. However, the most prominent contenders are Bourbon County in Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Both took their names from the House of Bourbon, a European royal house of French origin.





6. Is bourbon matured?

While the standards state that bourbon must be stored in charred oak barrels, there isn’t actually a minimum-ageing requirement. However, bourbon which has been aged fewer than four years must have an age statement on its label, and to be defined as ‘straight bourbon’ it must have been aged for a minimum of two.

7. What is bottled-in-bond?

Bottled-in-bond relates to an American-made distilled beverage that meets the legal requirements laid out in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. The act dictated that spirits must be the product of one distilling season from one distillery and bottled at 100 proof. It must also be aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse.

8. Is it recognised as whiskey in the EU?

It must be aged for at least three years to be recognised as whiskey in the EU.

9. What does it taste like?

While law dictates that no flavourings or colour additives may be added to bourbon, it nevertheless has a diverse flavour profile, typically characterised by vanilla, oak, caramel and spice. The best way to find out, though, is to try for yourself!

10. Is it good for cocktails?

Yes, bourbon is the featured spirit in many cocktail recipes from the classic old fashioned to the refreshing mint julep. There are many fantastic cocktails that utilise bourbon’s unique flavour profile. Check out Spruce Eats’ 20 Best Bourbon Cocktails for some inspiration.