What Is Bourbon?
Fun fact: it can only be made in the U.S.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
When the United States Congress declared Bourbon a “distinctive product” they recognized the pride distillers take in honoring the traditions and history involved in producing bourbon. There are so many ways to enjoy bourbon in cocktails and recipes, and so much to learn about how bourbon goes from the corn field to your cocktail.
What Is Bourbon?
Bourbon is an American whiskey, recognized by the U.S. Congress as a distinctive product of the United States. That distinction brings responsibilities: bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn and stored in brand-new oak barrels that have been flame-charred. That sounds simple enough, but there are many more rules that govern the proof, aging in the barrel time, bottling, labeling, mixing and more.
What Is the Best Bourbon?
The best bourbon is the one that you like the best. There are so many experts with opinions, you can search “best bourbon” and get dozens of lists of the “best”. Look for bourbon tastings in your area, sample a few and identify which flavor characteristics you prefer. Then ask the bourbon expert at a reputable liquor store for recommendations. If it's a large store with many bourbons, it will have a bourbon expert.
Bourbon Versus Scotch Versus Rye
Bourbon is a U.S.-made whiskey with extra steps added to its fermentation, distillation and aging process in agreement with the U.S. Congress. Distillers can label a spirit bourbon only when it has at least 51% corn in its mash and has been aged in a new charred oak barrel. Bourbon usually is described as tasting smooth with notes of caramel, vanilla and oak due to the aging process.
Whiskey is defined as a spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grains that has been aged in barrels. For more info, check out our story Bourbon vs. Whiskey.
Scotch is whisky made from a mash of malted barley. It can be aged in a used barrel (often used once for bourbon) and must be aged for at least 3 years. For an in depth look at malted barley, check out What Is Malt? where you’ll learn a lot about malt and Scotch.
Rye whiskey is made with a mash that must be at least 51% rye, the same rye that is used in rye bread. The resulting whiskey has a spicier flavor than bourbon.
How to Drink Bourbon
Experts say that to truly appreciate its flavor, nuances and complexities, there are three ways to sip and savor bourbon:
How to Drink Bourbon Neat
Pour room temperature bourbon into in a clear, short glass all on its own so you can admire the color as well as the flavor.
How to Drink Bourbon with Water
Pour bourbon into a glass and add a small splash of room temperature water to dilute and open up the flavors and aromas of your drink.
How to Drink Bourbon on the Rocks
Add a few ice cubes (or one large one, which will melt more slowly) into your glass of bourbon to dilute it slightly. The sensation of cold liquid becoming warm in your mouth and throat is thought to enhance the flavors.
How to Drink Bourbon In Cocktails
There are too many bourbon cocktails to count, but the cocktail that brings together what Kentucky is known for—bourbon, blue grass and The Derby is the Mint Julep. Mint, sugar, ice and bourbon in a frosty silver cup is how they're served at The Kentucky Derby.
Tools to Enjoy Bourbon
How Is Bourbon Made?
The process used to make bourbon takes a long time, but much of it is the barrel aging process. Making bourbon has an element in common with sour dough bread: each batch is started with a portion of a previous batch.
A blend of grains, water and yeast known as mash is put in a big cauldron, heated and stirred to begin the fermentation. The blend of grains must be at least 51% corn but is typically around 70%, with the remainder being a proprietary mix of malted barley, wheat or rye that each distiller keeps as a highly guarded secret recipe.
The mash ferments for 7 to 10 days, creating alcohols, and then a portion of the leftover mash from a previous distilled batch is added to the cauldron along with another measure of yeast. Adding the sour mash is akin to adding sourdough starter to bread dough. The sour mash brings the cauldron of mash to the right pH to encourage fermentation and discourage bacterial growth.
When fermentation is complete, the mash is strained and the liquid goes to the distillation process. The solids are the leftover mash, and some of it is used as sour mash for the next batch in line.
Distillation of the liquid from the fermentation cauldron occurs in two steps, first in a beer still and then in a heated copper still. The resulting distillate is a clear liquid, between 80 and 125 proof called white dog.
Next stop on the way to being bourbon is aging in flame-charred new oak barrels. The charring of the barrels creates caramelization of the natural sugars in the wood itself and brings out the elements of the wood called vanillins, the same compounds that give vanilla its flavor, and these flavors are picked up by the bourbon in the barrel. Distillers control the amount of char in the barrels the same way they control the blend of grains in the mash to obtain the distinct flavor they’re looking for in their bourbon. Over time, the liquid in the barrels takes on the qualities of the wood, developing the rich and complex flavors that define bourbon. The bourbon is then diluted with pure filtered water to bring the alcohol to 80 proof or more and is bottled.
There are other options distillers can use for time in the barrel, dilution, etc. and each will determine what can be put on the label. Bourbon that is held in the barrel for at least two years is called straight bourbon. Any bourbon aged for more than three months can be labeled bourbon—and that’s going to be the least expensive bottle on the shelf. As for the barrels, they can’t be used for bourbon again, so they are sold to wineries and whiskey distilleries that aren’t making bourbon or shipped to Scotland to be used for aging Scotch.
What Is a Substitute for Bourbon?
If you’re looking for a substitute for bourbon in a recipe for food (not cocktails) brandy, cognac or Scotch are your best bets.
For a cocktail, whiskey is the best option, and it could be a rye or a Scotch or Tennessee whiskey.
Recipes with Bourbon
The directions for this recipe may seem too precise, but the order of each step in the cooking ensures that you’ll be successful at one of the most difficult parts of cooking: getting everything on the table at the same time!
Putting bourbon in the fruit filling for a pie is a nice add-in, but putting a bit in the crust is brilliant.
This version of the midwestern classic is dressed up chocolate and pecans.
After you try this simple recipe, try the version with the egg white—it puts a frothy top on the cocktail that brings serious elegance to the glass.
Bourbon goes into a homemade BBQ sauce which you'll spoon over oysters before grilling them on the shell until they're just starting to bubble.