De-mystifying Bourbon, Take 1

Both an exercise in research and taste development, patience and history, I’ve decided to delve into putting together some pieces of the bourbon puzzle, and sharing the process and the results. Bourbon feels like a familiar lover. I owe bourbon better love than I’ve been giving it the past 3 months. This is going to be in parts…but I’m calling them takes for the inevitable moment when I realize, I’ve made this more confusing than when we started. The graphic below gives you a hint at the complexity of the bourbon (and rye) market.


Specifically, the illustration breaks down how many brands are actually made at the major Bourbon houses in Kentucky, where as much as 95% of the world’s bourbon supply is distilled. What doesn’t end up in these brands, often ends up sold each year, on the spot market or by contract. Those contracts end up being with “craft distillers,” many of which should just be called bottlers. These Takes of mine will unravel some of the obfuscation (and applaud the places that are upfront with their sources).

To really understand what you’re buying, and drinking, we need to both understand the labels/rules of bourbon production, and then apply that to what we’re drinking.

So…to be bourbon of any kind:

  • Made in the U.S. (anywhere, not just bourbon county, or kentucky)
  • Aged in new, charred oak (American oak, now mostly harvested in Minnesota)
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (if you go higher, it becomes light whiskey)
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125
  • Bottled at no less than 80 proof
  • No actual aging requirement

Straight Bourbon signifies:

  • minimum aging of two years
  • anything less than 4 years must be stated on the bottle
  • no colorings, flavorings, other spirits, etc.

Blended Bourbon:

can contain other grain spirit, BUT, must be 51% straight bourbon


  • product of one distillation season and of one distiller, at one distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse
  • minimum of 4 years aging
  • 100 proof in the bottle

If you feel like fact-checking me, all the law is from the Code of Federal Regulations. Next post, we’ll talk a bit more about the bourbon label, with some examples from some major brands you should already know (and love).


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