From its fabled Southern origins, dating back to the mid-19th century, this whiskey has earned the reputation of being America’s liquor.
It’s burnt golden nectar, with its singed sweetness, has a Congressional seal of approval with official status as ‘America’s Native Spirit’.
Bourbon drinkers will settle for nothing less.
There are many different bourbon whiskeys available. Each has its own distinctive flavor and, as you drink them, you will determine what you do and don’t like.
This article will serve as a great introduction to the different types of bourbon available.
The 3 Types of Bourbon: A Intro to America’s Native Spirit
Before we dive into the 3 main types of bourbon, let’s touch on the basics.
Bourbon is distilled all over the country, but Kentucky will always be considered its home state of production (…although there may be a few folks down in New Orleans and over in Tennessee who consider otherwise).
To be called a bourbon, the whiskey must:
- Have a mash (the grain-based mixture from which bourbon is made) that is at least 51% corn.
- Be distilled in charred oak barrels. These barrels give the liquor its distinctive golden hue.
- Be a maximum of 80% alcohol by volume.
Although there are no requirements on aging the whiskey the best batches are matured for at least four years. A batch aged less than two years is legally required to display its age on the bottle.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here’s a rundown of the various types of bourbon and a few examples of each.
The 3 Types of Bourbon
1) Traditional Bourbon
The grain component used to make the mash of traditional bourbon is over 70% corn, (the remainder being equal parts rye and barley).
Its flavor is a balanced blend of sweet and spice.
The traditional varieties are the brands that typically first come to mind when thinking about bourbon.
These are your Jim Beam, Evan William, Wild Turkey, Old Crow, and Knob Creek.
2) Wheat Bourbon
Wheat Bourbon is prepared very similarly to Traditional.
The difference, as the name implies, is that wheat is used in its mash mixture (replacing the rye). This sweetens the flavor, and also softens the burn.
The top wheat brands are Maker’s Mark, Four Roses and Old Fitzgerald.
3) Rye Bourbon
If you’re starting to notice a trend, you may have already guessed what makes a Rye Bourbon.
Once again, the concentration of the grain mixture is key.
In Rye Bourbon the mix will be less corn, almost no barley, and double the rye. Ryes are best known for their bite.
Popular brands include Bulleit (my personal favorite), Four Roses, George T. Stagg, Basil Hayden’s and Woodford Reserve.
The Little Things
Traditional, wheat and rye are the basic types of bourbon, but similar to scotch and other whiskeys, these types break down further into sub-lines based on slight alterations in production techniques.
Small batch bourbon
Unless otherwise stated, most bourbons, and whiskeys in general, are a blend of some kind. Small batch simply means that it is the blend of a small number of barrels.
What is small? There is no hard and fast number, but as a rule of thumb, small would be under 100.
Single barrel bourbon
As it sounds, this liquor is produced from a single barrel. Taste, aroma and color vary from barrel to barrel. Because of this, every new single barrel release you try will be slightly different.
When whiskeys are filtered, some of its flavor is filtered out. Because of this, many argue that this is the most flavorful of all the types of bourbon. Quite simply, unfiltered bourbon is not filtered. This leaves the liquor with a hazy appearance.
Blended bourbon is slightly harder to find than most blended whiskeys. It has other additives for color or flavoring mixed in once the whiskey is out of the barrel At least 51% of the mixture has to be straight bourbon.
As you can see there are quite a few different types of bourbon. Now that you have the foundational knowledge, it’s time get out there and enjoy America’s native spirit!