What is bourbon? Is it different from other whiskeys?
There is a great hierarchal myth among whiskey drinkers. Scotch drinkers are interesting, swarthy characters. Irish whiskey drinkers like the finer things in life. And bourbon drinkers - well, they are the gun slingin’ renegades of the whiskey world. Bourbon drinkers are hardcore, they live outside the law, frankly, my dear, they don’t give a damn. If whiskey drinkers are Winston Churchill, bourbon drinkers are John Wayne.
Bourbon vs. Whiskey - what’s the difference?
Bourbon drinkers are a special breed of whiskey lovers. The drink is by far the most popular variety of whiskey in the United States and even though we haven’t been so quick to adopt it across the pond, it still remains one of the only true American spirits.
Like Irish and Scotch whiskey (or whisky), the production of bourbon is governed by a set of strict rules. It must be made from a mash bill - or a cooked and fermented mix of grains such as corn, rye or wheat, and malted barley and for it to be called bourbon, this must be at least 51 percent corn. It must also be made in the United States, be distilled to at least 80 proof, and aged in new charred oak. Note that while it is not a legal requirement to age in wooden barrels although this is the most common practice. American white oak gives the best results. Additionally, there is no age requirement to age bourbon and while many people think that it is exclusively made in Kentucky, it could realistically be made in a backyard in Hicksville, USA, and still be called bourbon. Finally, bourbon must be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof (80% ABV) and must go into the barrels at 125 proof (62.5% ABV).
All Bourbon is Whiskey but not all Whiskey is Bourbon
That's right - bourbon is only a type of American whiskey, not a generic name for all cowboy liquors. There are other types - such as rye whiskey or Tennessee whiskey that you might confuse bourbon with, but unless the distilled spirits have followed the strict process above, they ‘ain't bourbon.
There is much talk about bourbon vs. whiskey (or whisky), with the spirits often being compared unfairly to one another. Think of it like this: chardonnay is to wine what IPA is to beer, what bourbon is to whiskey. Different flavour profiles dominate the spirit - and are a joy to discover. Rye whiskies are usually not as sweet as bourbon and tend to lean on a spicier, fruitier taste spectrum. Scotch is all about what is used to dry the malted barley (this is what gives Scotch its famous caramel vanilla taste) and can be much more of an acquired taste. We might be biased (we are), but Irish whiskies are not world-famous for their beautiful, smooth flavour profile for nothing. And single malts, whether they be Irish or anything, well, they are the just the creme de la creme.
Too old fashioned for the new Old-Fashioned
The spirit was hugely popular stateside pre-prohibition. Many enterprising doctors had lucrative sidelines selling medical prescriptions for the spirit during the 1920s, US law stated that provided you had a medical need for the spirit, you could still enjoy a little hooch. But the spirit fell out of fashion during the 1960s; it was considered old-fashioned and cheap during the post-Second World War boom where modernity and foreign imports reigned supreme. Come the 1960s and everyone who was channelling their inner Don Draper and drinking whiskey yes, but Scotch please, not bourbon.
Like many spirits, bourbon has had a renaissance recently. Cocktail culture is partly to thank for this, while lockdown and at-home entertaining gave us the confidence to start experimenting and getting creative with our shakers. Bourbon’s versatility has allowed countless amateur mixologists to flex their bartending skills and create a few at-home concoctions, replacing the traditional measure of whiskey for bourbon in their John Collins’ and Mint Juleps.