Using a specific mash bill with carefully measured amounts of grains can create the glorious ambrosia we mere mortals call bourbon.
Beloved by the likes of Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, William Faulkner, and Hillary Clinton, to name but a few, it’s a beverage with broad appeal and ardent devotees.
Of the ten types of bourbon we’ll discuss, at least one will be just right for you, and if you love bourbon, you might feel compelled to try all ten. I wouldn’t dream of stopping you.
Learn about the different types of bourbon, and learn the difference between bourbon and whiskey to really improve your liquor knowledge.
Standard Bourbon Whiskey
“Standard” is an indication of a bourbon following the basic rules required for it to be bourbon.
Those rules are:
- 51 percent corn mash
- Aged in new charred oak barrels
- Aged for at least two years
- Barrelled at a maximum of 125 proof
Failure to meet these requirements means a liquor not only isn’t a standard bourbon whiskey but also that it’s not bourbon at all. It might be delicious, but it’s not bourbon.
High-Rye & Wheated Bourbon
By definition, bourbon must have at least 51 percent of its mash bill come from corn.
The mash bill is the list of grains used in a particular bourbon (or other whiskeys) during fermentation.
The other 49 percent of a given bourbon’s mash bill gives us the different types of bourbon.
When that remaining 49 percent has a high rye content, we call it a high-rye bourbon. If there’s a good amount of wheat, then it’s a wheated bourbon.
Both grains have sugars tightly packed into proteins, so it’s difficult to get to them and turn them into alcohol, making these bourbons a little pricier.
Rye gives the bourbon a spicier flavor, while a higher wheat content mellows the finish of the bourbon, making for a smoother sip.
Blended Bourbon Whiskey
Blended bourbon is a bottled elixir that combines different bourbons, which can mean bourbons with different mash bills, distilleries, and sometimes states.
Back in the day, “blended” was the opposite of “straight,” and many people assumed that meant “cheaper.” Today, many bourbon enthusiasts recognize that blending bourbons into one fine concoction is a calling from a higher power.
While many great blended bourbons exist, the Four Roses distillery has made an art out of blending bourbons.
True to the name, they use four, and the combination of the different mash bills makes for a spicy bourbon that’s simultaneously smooth.
Straight Bourbon Whiskey
We mentioned mash bill in defining what bourbon is, but the contents aren’t the only thing we look at. There’s also where the bourbon gets aged.
Straight bourbon must spend at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.
When you buy a bottle of Frey Ranch straight bourbon whiskey, you know that it ages in casks, resulting in a singular sipping extravaganza.
A good straight bourbon imparts a pleasurable drinking experience, whether sitting by the fireplace with your beloved or dipping your feet in the lake as you relax at the end of the day.
If you look at the ingredients, it’s understandable you may think there’s no difference between Tennessee whiskey and any other bourbon. But you’d be wrong.
Unless it adheres to two requirements, it ain’t Tennessee whiskey:
- It must undergo distilling in the state of Tennessee.
- It must undergo the Lincoln County process (LCP).
The process involves passing whiskey over charcoal before it goes into barrels for aging, a process perfected in Lincoln County, home of Jack Daniel’s.
Still, the intricacies of the LCP vary from distillery to distillery, and most regard the specifics of it as a trade secret.
Bottled in Bond Bourbon
Before the Food and Drug Administration regulated an acceptable amount of rat droppings in your favorite breakfast cereal, the bourbon lovers of the 19th century cried out for regulation, which resulted in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.
The act regulated what could go in liquids and still qualified them as bourbon. This act’s design ensures unadulterated bourbon.
Bottled in bond bourbon must, according to the act, meet three standards:
- It must come from a single distiller in a single season (not year, but season: spring or fall).
- It must age for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse
- Bottling occurs at 50% ABV.
Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Like Tennessee Whiskey, Kentucky Bourbon must be distilled in the Bluegrass State to get that label.
The only other requirement is the same for any bourbon— that its mash bill is at least 51 percent corn.
It isn’t overly complex, and you don’t need to be a bourbon snob to recognize its greatness.
There’s a hint of vanilla before you ever taste it, and then you get sweetness, a little spice, and oaky flavors. Superb.
Small-Batch & Single-Barrel Bourbon
Small-batch bourbons come from bourbons aged in up to 50 different barrels, then blended into a final product.
Single-barrels age in a single barrel. Since no two barrels can be the same— even if they’ve never had anything in them before, they’re still made from individual pieces of wood— the bourbon from one barrel will have slight differences from that of another.
Both types allow for specialized batches that bourbon lovers prize and others cannot replicate.
Sour Mash Bourbon
Sour mash bourbon uses a mash bill that’s essentially used mash.
Just like you need a starter to make certain kinds of bread, like sourdough, you need a pre-existing mash that’s already spent time in another distillation process.
Michter’s Distillery makes a variety of bourbons, and their sour mash is second to none.
The smoother nature of sour mash bourbon is on full display here, and you’ll get hints of both cocoa and vanilla in a glass of Michter’s.
It’s not super cheap, but you get what you pay for, and this is a fine bourbon.
Remember that 51 percent corn requirement? Corn bourbon goes all in, using up to a 100 percent corn mash bill.
Some distilleries add a low percentage of malted barley or another grain, but the idea behind corn bourbon is that it uses corn and a lot of it.
When you taste a corn bourbon, you get hints of corn, and depending on the bourbon in question, it may be more than just hints.
Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey has enough corn overtones that I always have a flash of eating movie popcorn (without butter, of course) when I sip it.
Admittedly, corn bourbon isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the most subtle of all the types of bourbon you’ll ever drink, but like anything else, if it’s up your alley, you’ll love it.