Bourbon 101

Last Updated: July 8, 2024

Bourbon is America’s whiskey. By definition, bourbon is at least 51 percent corn, produced in the United States, and has aged for some time in new, charred oak barrels (there is no minimum defined time unless it is labeled Straight Bourbon Whiskey). It doesn’t, contrary to popular belief, have to be made in Kentucky.

When it comes to whiskey, it commonly comes down to bourbon vs rye or bourbon vs Scotch. There’s plenty of good bourbon out there for competitions like that, but it’s not all about ratings. Some of the best brands like Jim Beam, Four Roses, and Maker’s Mark taste just as good neat as they do in classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Mint Julep, and Old Fashioned.

Looking for a bottle to drink? See our always updated list of the best overall Bourbons as well as the best Bourbons under $50!

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, made with a mixture of grains (mash bill) containing at least 51 percent corn. Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States, not just Kentucky as is widely believed. The liquor must be distilled to no stronger than 160 proof, and the distillate must then enter charred new oak barrels at 125 proof or less. Bottles can be labeled “Straight Bourbon Whiskey” when they have aged in charred new oak for at least two years.

Bourbon vs Whiskey

Bourbon and whiskey are often compared directly against each other. In fact, bourbon is a type of whiskey, much like Cabernet Sauvignon is a type of wine or IPA is a type of beer. While bourbon is legally bound to be made using a majority corn in the mash bill, whiskey can be distilled from wheat, rye, barley, or corn. Whiskey’s distillation proof must be no more than 190 proof (30 proof points higher than bourbon) and its origin can be anywhere in the world.

How to Drink Bourbon

With any spirit, there’s an opportunity to be as simple or creative as you like. Imbibing bourbon is no exception. To let the spirit’s natural characteristics shine, serve it neat, dilute with a small amount of water, or pour over ice (à la on the rocks). Explore its diversity in classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Mint Julep, and Old Fashioned. Bourbon’s versatility also extends to the kitchen. Experiment with bourbon spiked chili, or indulge your sweet tooth by creating a bourbon syrup for weekend waffles or salted-bourbon caramel sauce for ice cream and peach pie.

Bourbon Essential Info

  • Color: Light to rich amber
  • Region: Though it’s associated with Kentucky, bourbon can technically be made anywhere
  • ABV: At least 40% ABV, Cask Strength can be significantly higher
  • Aged: No requirements, but almost always aged, and always in charred new oak barrels
  • Made from: At least 51% corn, the rest typically rye and barley (also possibly wheat)
  • Commercial Examples: Bulleit, Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve
  • Popular Cocktails: The Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, Boulevardier, Improved Whiskey Cocktail, Whiskey Sour, The Derby

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