About five years ago, a young man working the counter at a Richmond, Virginia ABC told me that Bourbon whiskey must be made from the water of the Bourbon River…problematic. For one, the Bourbon River is not a thing. More worrisome: the employee was making all sorts of recommendations and judgments for other consumers. Let’s set a few things straight.
All bourbon is whiskey; but not all whiskey is bourbon. You know that.
Whiskey is a defined in Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, part 5.22 as an “alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers.” American whiskey distillers are free to use water from a magical river, the mineral-rich Kentucky River, municipal water from New York City, rain water from Texas, Rocky Mountain snowmelt, or something else.
Bourbon whiskey is a distinctly American type of whiskey. Congress said so in 1964:
Notice how American lawmakers do not spell whisk[e]y consistently. It’s confusing. We, along with most bourbon whisk[e]y enthusiasts and producers, prefer whiskey (but, annoyingly, classics like Maker’s Mark and Old Forester use whisky).
The same federal regulation cited above (27 C.F.R. 5.22) defines Bourbon whiskey. Here are the now well-established requirements:
- Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
- Bourbon must be produced in the United States of America (not just Kentucky)!
- Bourbon must be stored in charred, new oak containers.
- Bourbon may not be distilled in excess of 160 proof; it may not enter the barrel in excess of 125 proof; it must be bottled at 80 proof or higher.
Note also that Bourbon has no minimum aging requirement, despite various claims that it must be 2 or 4 years old. However, to be called "straight," whiskey must mature for at least 2 years in new, charred oak. If it spends less than 4 years in oak, the label must declare an age statement. See, e.g. the 3.5 year Smooth Ambler Yearling bourbon, below.
Age statements must reflect the youngest whiskey in a blend of bourbons (e.g. a blend of 21 year old bourbon and 2 year old bourbon is a "2 year old bourbon," even if a majority of the blend is 21).
Distillers may add proofing water to bourbon, but nothing else. It is illegal to add coloring or flavoring agents to bourbon (unlike rum, for example). Bourbons that are transferred to rum or wine or beer barrels for additional flavor/maturation may be called "Bourbons finished in [whatever] casks/barrels/butts/hogsheads/etc." See, e.g. the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection from 2017- a straight bourbon whiskey finished in brandy casks.
Labels must reflect the state of distillation if the whiskey was bottled in a state other than the one where it was distilled.
The “state of distillation” requirement has been enforced more forcefully since so many “non-distiller producers” began purchasing stock whiskey from distilleries like MGP and selling them under flashy, craft labels.
To sum up with an example, if you see an "Alabama Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks. Produced in Kansas," now you know that:
- You are drinking a majority corn whiskey, which was distilled in Alabama.
- It matured in new, charred oak barrels (somewhere) for at least 2 years, and most likely more than 4, if it lacks an age statement.
- It was transferred to an ex-Sherry cask for at least one day.
- It was bottled in Kansas.
Finally, the terms “single barrel” and “small batch” are not defined. Single barrel (e.g. Blanton’s: The Original Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey) implies that the distillery did not blend any barrels together; rather each bottle exclusively contains the bourbon of one particular, single barrel. It’s likely that one bottle of Blanton’s (from barrel 1234) may taste different than another bottle (containing bourbon from barrel 4321).
“Small batch” implies that multiple barrels were blended together to create a product. Note that a “small batch” could be a blend of two barrels or two-thousand…or two-million. Also, as if to confuse matters, Wild Turkey produces “Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey.” What?!
For continued reading on the basics and on bourbon’s role in American society, check out these books:
Our methodology and grading scale
For a vast majority of the whiskeys reviewed on this site, we've each tasted the whiskey, made independent notes, and discussed/compared. Generally, we'll do a second tasting to confirm our initial impressions before assigning a "gut grade" of A+ through F. We vary the vessels we use to taste whiskey, especially with whiskeys we've consumed many times, but we generally use Glencairn glasses.
A+: Legendary: A truly amazing whiskey that we probably spent way too much $ on.
A-B+: Outstanding: A well-balanced, delicious whiskey that we'd give as a special gift.
B-C+: Good: A whiskey with character but some negative qualities.
C-D+: Not awful: but not something we'd buy again for ourselves or as a gift.
D-F: Awful: Will actively tell others to avoid, even at a $8/bottle.