Everything You Need to Know About Bourbon

Bourbon is one of the most popular liquors in America, and for good reason. It’s smooth, balanced, perfect for a cocktail or a shot, and available everywhere.

A bourbon cocktail in a rocks glass with ice and a lemon twist, with a cigar in the background

It seems that every year, bourbon becomes more and more popular. And it’s not hard to see why! It is, in my eyes, a perfect liquor. It’s strong enough to hold up to a meal like barbecue or a steak dinner, but smooth enough to mix into a refined, fancy cocktail. It’s good on its own, to sip or shoot, or mixed with other ingredients.

There are lots of big-name bourbon makers in the country, but every year more and more independent distilleries pop up. It’s never been a better time to be a fan of this liquor But what if you’re new to it and don’t know what it’s all about? We’ve got all the information you need about this exceptional drink. 

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey that has been made since the 18th century. The thing that makes it unique is that the primary ingredient is corn. In order to be given the label of bourbon, it must be made out of at least 51% corn. It also has to be aged in a charred oak barrel. 

How is it Made?

Making bourbon is the same process as any other type of whiskey, it just has to be primarily made of corn, and aged in charred oak barrels. A mash is made out of corn and other grains, usually barley and rye. While the mash has to be at least 51% corn, it’s usually between 60% and 80%. 

Water is added to the grains to make the mash, and it’s then heated. This creates sugar from the grains. The mash is then given yeast and fermented, during which time the sugar turns into alcohol. The liquor is then distilled and aged in oak barrels until it’s ready to be bottled. 

Where is it Made?

The vast majority of bourbon is made in Kentucky. However, it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, it’s just where most distilleries are, as the climate is ideal for making most types of American whiskey. It does need to be made in the United States, however. 

What is the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey? 

Bourbon is a kind of whiskey, which means that all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. A generic whiskey can be made anywhere in the world, with any combination of grains. 

There are some other types of whiskeys that have restrictions. Rye whiskey has to be made out of at least 51% rye. Scotch whiskey has to be made in Scotland and, similarly, Canadian, Japanese, and Irish whiskeys all have to be made in their countries. 

A red cocktail in a mason jar with a sugar rim, with a lemon slice and two blackberries on top

What Does it Taste Like? 

In addition to the distinctive whiskey taste that most of us know and love, it usually has a fairly strong vanilla and caramel flavor, due to the charred oak barrels. You can often even taste the oak itself.

It’s common for bourbons to have a slightly fruity flavor, such as apple or peach, and they often taste of warm spices (imagine the flavors you add to a pie). Bourbon is usually a little smoother than other types of whiskey. 

How Do You Drink it? 

There’s no wrong way to drink it! It’s commonly served by itself, either neat or on the rocks, because of how smooth it is. Some people add a little drop of water to it when served neat, to “bloom” the flavors. Thanks to the many interesting flavor notes in bourbon, it’s a common base for a lot of cocktails, too. Some people even shoot it, though I prefer to savor mine!

Is it Gluten-Free?

Yes, bourbon is considered gluten-free. Almost all bourbons have barley and rye, and many have wheat as well. That leads many to believe that it is not gluten-free, but the distillation process removes the gluten from those grains. As a result, it is generally safe for people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerances. 

bourbon cocktail with apple garnish

What Classic Cocktails Use Bourbon? 

Most whiskey cocktails can be made with any type of whiskey, so there aren’t many cocktails that exclusively use it, though the bourbon smash is a famous one. 

All the classic whiskey cocktails, such as the Manhattan, the old fashioned, the mint julep, and the whiskey sour, are fantastic with this type of whiskey. 

Is it Expensive? 

The majority of bourbons are fairly affordable. Like most spirits, you can find a few really expensive bourbons, and a few dangerously cheap ones, but most fall into the affordable middle ground.

Cocktails to Try

Here are some of my favorite cocktails to make with this corn-based liquor.

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